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Ideas & Debate

Kenyan varsities need training programmes for PhD supervisors

Vimal Shah
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology Chancellor Vimal Shah (right) and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Agong’ confer a PhD on a graduand during a ceremony in 2018. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI  

Kenyan universities have over the recent years faced a shortage of academic staff with doctoral qualifications. Additionally, the quality of such qualifications have been questioned. More recently, the Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, voiced his concerns over the quality of PhDs awarded by local universities.

The number of post-graduates being produced by local universities is far too low and not sufficient to meet the country’s needs like staffing universities, replacing an ageing academic staff, as well as the professional clique needed in governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations. Such needs might have informed the recent directive by the Commission for University Education (CUE) that all university lecturers must obtain doctoral qualifications by October 2019.

That is obviously a far-fetched dream now.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the higher education sector continues to witness tremendous growth. In Kenya, for example, the number of institutions of higher learning has grown from only one university in 1970 to 74 accredited universities by 2017. The government has invested in the growth of higher education in view of the pressure resulting from fast-growing numbers of those completing secondary schools as well as in line with the national development priorities which aim to propel the country into a middle-income economy and a knowledge society.

Whereas the number of universities is increasing rapidly, the growth cannot be matched with the number of students registering and graduating with doctoral degrees. Kenya’s Vision 2030 acknowledges the place of research in knowledge creation and the government envisages universities in the country to be at forefront of cutting-edge research and knowledge.

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This, the government hopes, will enable the country to respond effectively to various challenges hindering development in the country. However, the CUE has recognised the inadequacy of academic staff with PhD qualifications in Kenyan universities.

To this end, there is a growing need to build PhD capacity in the country. This is necessary to fulfil the teaching needs at the institutions of higher learning, as well as in meet the country’s national research and economic agenda.

Supervisors play a critical role in contributing to the success of the doctoral students. The quality and efficiency of a doctoral degree programme rests largely on the quality of the supervision. Additionally, quality service provision remains one of the key performance indicators globally. As a result, the need for quality supervisors can hardly be overemphasised.

Supervisors should mould their doctoral students with skills that will enable them to contribute effectively and be more competitive in the new knowledge-based society. Such skills set is diverse irrespective of the doctoral candidate’s discipline.

Doctoral students not only require technical advice in their subject areas (which of course is important for them to contribute to existing knowledge formations), they also need guidance, mentorship, coaching and inspiration. These are roles that an affective doctoral supervisor cannot relegate.

Consequently, there is need for doctoral supervisors to be prepared for this enormous task. An underprepared supervisor will most likely fall short of successfully supervising a doctoral student to completion.

In Kenya, there are several challenges that have characterised the growth of the higher education sector. These include funding, quality, diversity of programmes, infrastructure to support growing student numbers, and unqualified academic staff. Supervision has often been cited as one of the major challenges afflicting PhD programmes.

This is partially due to the inadequate numbers of academic staff with PhD qualifications who can supervise doctoral students. It is also true, that those with PhDs are in many cases ill-prepared to successfully supervise doctoral students.

Internationally, there is increasing emphasis on formal or professional training for doctoral supervisors and formulation of policies, regulations as well as strategies to enhance the quality of supervisors of doctoral programmes.

Such trainings might take several forms such as workshops, courses and formal mentorship programmes. For the first time, a formal doctoral supervisors training programme called DIES/CREST Online Training Course for Supervisors of Doctoral Candidates at African Universities was rolled out in 2018 with 161 participants from 25 countries across Africa.

More of such initiatives should be encouraged and universities should take the centre stage in equipping supervisors through formal trainings or providing avenues and environment where sharing of experiences can take place. Appreciating the need for well-equipped doctoral supervisors, developed countries like UK, New Zealand, and Australia have introduced relevant professional development programmes.

It is high time institutions of higher learning in Kenya introduced similar formal training programmes to ensure that doctoral supervisors are well prepared for the task of guiding doctoral students. Professional training is likely to reduce the probability of the supervisors having to learn through trial and error.

Ndiege is Assistant Professor of Information Systems at United States International University - Africa. [email protected]

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