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Why only one out of 10 PhD students in Kenya complete their studies

Phd data
Surveys have shown that well over half of the academic staff in public universities in Kenya do not have PhDs. 

Concerns about the quality of training and research in Kenyan public universities are rife of late with the Commission for University Education (CUE) demanding that all assistant lecturers acquire a doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) by October 2019 for them to qualify to teach.

Surveys have shown that well over half of the academic staff in public universities in Kenya do not have PhDs.

“This situation was more serious in the newly established public universities and their private counterparts.

“Overall, the associate and full professors represent five-ten per cent of the total number of staff, and about 40 per cent of the academic staff hold doctoral degrees in the established older universities,” says a freshly published report by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Despite this quest to improve teaching in the universities, all may not seem easy just yet thanks to an extremely low number of PhD graduates.

“It is important to highlight that the growth and expansion in PhD programmes do not match the growth of institutions of higher learning. For the academic year 2015-16 there were 7,146 PhD students in Kenyan universities representing 1.3 percent of the total student population,” the British Council-DAAD report added.

The problem does not end with low PhD enrolment numbers.

The survey showed that only 11 percent of the PhD students enrolled in Kenyan universities complete their studies, meaning a whopping 89 percent fail to graduate.

Lengthy completion time

And even for those who qualified for the award of PhDs in Kenya, they had to endure lengthy completion time of up to six years, which is double the recommended period of three years.

Kenya has set its national benchmark for doctoral graduation completion rate at 20 percent and with three years.

Graduation trends from 2011 to 2015 shows that the University of Nairobi produced 117 PhDs, with unavailable data in two academic years, Moi University 196, Kenyatta 349, Egerton 84, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology 260, Maseno 81, Pwani 3, Catholic University of Eastern Africa 80, and Mount Kenya 17. These figures represent 11 percent of the total students at enrolment.

The majority of these PhD graduates in Kenya are mainly in social science disciplines.

“Doctoral research is heavily skewed towards business and administration, with moderate numbers in other social sciences, arts and humanities and agricultural sciences, but with fewer students in health sciences, other natural sciences and engineering” the DAAD-British Council report said.

“This suggests that despite the strategic emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in national policies, there are still low enrolments in these subjects”

Social science

The bias for PhD in social science disciplines is reflected by the profile of staff in the various departments of universities in Kenya.

Schools or faculties that are arts and social science-based have higher numbers of PhD holders, about 40 percent according to the report.

In the science and technology-based schools or faculties, PhD holders are as low as 25 percent.

In addition, in some of the young universities and new schools or faculties, there were hardly any professors. The majority of academic staff have master’s degrees as their highest academic qualification.

PhD graduands at a past ceremony at Kenyatta University.

PhD graduands at a past ceremony at Kenyatta University. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Similar skills

The low level of academic staff qualifications is compounded by the fact that the numbers of those qualified to teach PhD students are also low.

The diversity of doctoral programmes in Kenya is of concern for the government in that while it is acknowledged that doctoral research in business, administration, and arts and humanities reflects the needs of the labour market and society, at the same time it is believed that over-concentration in these fields will disadvantage key national development sectors and may lead to overproduction of graduates with similar skills.

“A cause for further concern is the disproportionate number of male students enrolled in PhD programmes compared to their female counterparts. The current ratio of male to female students is 2:1,” the report said.

Interviews with the graduates revealed a raft of challenges, which have inhibited qualification for the ward of PhDs in Kenya.

“In addition to funding, there were also challenges associated with student life circumstances, especially the fact that most of them were in employment and already had families thus constraining their time and resources that could be deployed to their PhD training,” the report said.

Aged over 40

Most PhD students in Kenya were established to be relatively older with the majority being aged over 40, which would explain this. In addition, those interviewed said that supervisors took too long to give them feedback on their work and there were also no institutional mechanisms to seek redress in such cases.

A number of the PhD students who were staff within the universities in Kenya complained of being weighed down by a heavy workload, especially due to the high student numbers.

“At the same time, the students felt that the programmes were not flexible enough to provide for their needs, especially as most of them were not conventional students” the report further said.