Go back

The great training challenge

Image: Dave Herholz [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Africa needs to increase its production of PhDs—but training efforts are hampered by constrained mobility, funding shortages, a lack of supervisors and government apathy.

These challenges, and how to address them, were discussed at a workshop convened by South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 27 to 29 October in Pretoria.

The meeting brought together university leaders from across Africa with representatives of funding agencies and PhD training initiatives.

Africa’s academic institutions need to produce “thousands and thousands” of PhDs over the coming years to drive development, the workshop heard from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union Commission.

Producing PhDs in such numbers while maintaining high quality is not easy, the meeting heard. But it may not be impossible, said Omotade Akin Aina, Carnegie’s programme director of higher education and libraries in Africa.

Discussions have centred on what universities, networks and funders can do, he said. But these discussions have been too separate: “Time has come for the conversations to come together.”

Carnegie is one of the organisations backing a major African higher education summit, planned for late 2014.

The Pretoria workshop’s recommendations will be presented at the summit. Initiatives suggested in the workshop’s closing session included:

  • More political support from the African Union and national governments for PhD training
  • Coordination of PhD training across African regions through organisations such as the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community Of West African States.
  • Institution-funded incentives for supervisors and mentoring activities, instead of reliance on external aid and funds.

However, the workshop did not find it easy to agree on a silver bullet solution for Africa’s PhD training challenges.

Collaboration between universities is still woefully low, and its role in building academic capacity poorly understood, said Katherine Nammadu, a Ghana-born higher education expert, in her summation of the first day’s deliberations.

“University leaders are not clear on values and mechanisms of real collaboration,” she said.

The problem of richer African universities poaching talent from poorer ones was also repeatedly raised. George Magoha, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi in Kenya, repeatedly accused South African universities for making off with his best students. “We expect South Africa to lead from the front but they are doing the reverse of what they should be doing,” he said.

Many delegates bemoaned their governments’ apathy in putting more financing towards postgraduate training. However, Nammadu reminded university leaders that it was their responsibility as well as that of their governments to make it a priority.

“Government policy is crucial but institutions need to be more proactive,” she said.

Other challenges include ‘inbreeding’—where academics spend their entire career from undergraduate degrees to senior research posts at the same institution—as well as the ever-present threat of brain drain.

There was, however, unanimous agreement that greater cooperation between Africans could go a long way to solving PhD training issues.