Africa: Reshaping African PhDs for Development

With the growing recognition that knowledge and innovation are critical contributors to national wealth and welfare, postgraduate education – specifically doctoral training -has become a priority for African higher education.

South Africa’s National Research Foundation launched its PhD project some years ago with the specific intention of ramping up the number of doctoral graduates produced annually by the South African higher education system. This is one of the policy objectives of the National Development Plan and of the newly published White Paper for Post-School Education and Training.

Initiatives for change

Many universities have responded with keenness and enthusiasm to the call to increase doctoral education. They have been introducing new structures, such as graduate schools, and have launched initiatives to provide academic support for doctoral students in the form of mentorships, guidelines on selecting supervisors, and writing groups.

Incentives including fee waivers for doctoral students and increased numbers of bursaries and scholarships

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have also been provided.

So the call for increased investment in doctoral education in Africa is gaining momentum. But in a context of limited resources and with rising pressure on public finances, should more funds be channelled to support doctoral students?

After all, African countries are faced with a dire need to put more resources into the provision of basic services, social welfare and infrastructure.

Is doctoral training relevant to development in Africa? Making the case for increased investments in doctoral training is likely to depend on demonstrable linkages between doctoral degrees and African socio-economic development.

Doctoral education in African universities has, by and large, followed a traditional model, which views the main purpose of the doctorate as being a pathway to an academic career.

But academic job opportunities are not expanding rapidly – at least not at the same pace as student enrolment growth – and academic careers are not regarded as a career of choice by the majority of young, talented African students. Rather, many see the doctorate as a desirable qualification for obtaining a high level position in the public and private sectors.

Linking PhDs and growth

In fact, the recent emphasis on the expansion of doctoral training in Africa is not driven by the need to grow academic careers and institutions for this purpose alone.

While there is recognition of the need to fast track the production of the next generation of academics, the very recent drive for expansion is linked to a desire to accelerate high level skills development and also to shift African economies towards greater levels of knowledge and innovation as essential ingredients for economic growth in the twenty-first century.

Although there has been rapid growth in university enrolments, this growth has mostly been in professional fields such as business management, health sciences and education rather than the formative disciplines such as basic sciences and humanities.

Given the changing imperatives for doctoral graduates, the relevance of the traditional model to African development warrants critical review. We must grapple with the fundamental question of the purpose or purposes of the doctorate, the relevance of the education model and the criteria for assessing excellence.

The dominant model of doctoral education continues to take the form of the student conducting research under supervision by an academic. In South Africa there has been a change in that the national qualifications framework was revised last year to cater for two types of doctoral degrees.

In addition to the traditional PhD awarded on the basis of a research thesis, universities may now offer a professional doctorate intended for careers in industry and the professions.

The major difference is that the professional doctorate is only partly based on research with the rest being comprised of courses and practice-based work. This shift has generated vigorous debate especially among research-intensive universities where some academics regard this as a lower version of the traditional PhD.

Championing original research

Research must however, remain central, if doctoral education is a means to stimulate knowledge production and innovation as a driver of economic development. Too often there is conflation of the dissertation or thesis with research as the core component, but these are not synonymous.

As an external examiner, I have often been presented with a bound document comprising hundreds of pages summarising the literature, with a very small sub-section containing original research.

Rather than focusing on whether a doctoral degree should comprise a thesis only, a set of published papers or coursework and a short research report, more serious attention should be given to the quality of the research and its relevance to the transformation of the knowledge and innovation landscape in Africa.

I’d also like to emphasise the importance of teamwork in research. African universities can do more to embrace the growing trend whereby research has become much more of a collaborative, communitarian pursuit involving teams of scholars and students working across disciplines.

By pooling resources and forming robust research alliances and networks, the isolation experienced by many academics and students due to an absence of critical mass could be overcome.

Answers to the question of how to expand and sustain excellence in African doctoral training within the contexts of scarce resources and global competitiveness are mostly likely to be found through universities working in conjunction with research agencies, industry, NGOs and governments.

Climate change, food security, peace-building, poverty eradication and other pressing issues have the best chance of being addressed through multidisciplinary teams of individuals who, in addition to scientific expertise, exercise ethical judgement, empathy and a commitment to social justice.

Cheryl de la Rey is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She can be contacted at

This article is part of the series on Africa’s PhD renaissance. This and other content in the Africa’s PhD Renaissance Series is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.