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Society

Fool-proof checklist to stop Kenya's PhD cheats

A graduand
A graduand is being conferred with PhD by former University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor George Magoha (right), now Education Cabinet Secretary. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Imagine a large multinational technology firm entering the Sub-Saharan African market and choosing Nairobi as its regional hub. As part of their major recruitment drive, the company seeks to hire competent doctoral holders to conduct research in information technology, engineering, management, organisational psychology, and Artificial Intelligence.

Candidates come and go through multi-staged interview processes all with impressive doctoral dissertations.

However, the hiring managers notice a theme. Almost none of the interviewees can talk deeply about their field, name key previous research conducted, discuss the latest cutting-edge research, or delineate key and emerging trends.

Frustrated with lacklustre local recruitment, the corporation opens doctoral degree holder hiring up to the broader East African region and bypass PhD recruits from Kenyan universities.

Such depressing staffing challenges happen all too often in Kenya. Business Talk in the Business Daily ran an eight-part series in 2018 highlighting frightening quality and cheating concerns in post-graduate research programmes in Kenya.

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Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, stoked controversy last week when he commented about the rampant cheating in Kenyan PhD programmes and ordered a review of doctoral education in the country. Many doctorate-level students lamented the new crackdown while several well-respected academics applauded Prof Magoha’s new review.

In sitting on interview panels, I have witnessed stunning incompetence from doctoral candidates applying for lecturer positions and corporate placements. A recent PhD holder from a major Kenyan public university who wrote her dissertation on microfinance loan delinquency rates in the country could not state in the interview what the sector delinquency rates were, which sadly, was the entire basis of her dissertation. We found out upon running a check on another candidate holding a senior position in a large private university that he plagiarised his entire PhD dissertation word-for-word from a university in India.

Practical solutions

A different candidate, it turned out, even brought their “assistant” into a doctoral defence and referred to them when questions about their multiple regression analysis were raised.

Sadly, Prof Magoha is correct.

We hold a full-blown PhD quality crisis and cheating epidemic happening in our country.

But in Kenya, we have a tendency to introduce too much bureaucracy when crises occur rather than put in place practical realistic methods to solve the problem. To immediately stem the issue and discourage doctoral students from paying third parties to cheat and do their research for them, universities should use the following checklist.

First, in business-related PhDs, the lead supervisor must see the original surveys collected. The supervisor must look for anomalies in the actual filling out of the questionnaires.

Second, the university should require researchers to get the signature and ID or mobile phone number of each questionnaire respondent on a different sign-up page that includes a disclosure. Then the supervisor should spot-check the hundreds of supposed survey takers and see if they remember actually doing a survey. Many doctoral students fake fill-out questionnaires.

Third, universities must provide the full dissertations to examiners, both internal and external, over four weeks or more in advance of the oral defence date. Some universities have notoriously given the examiners the PhD dissertations to review within two hours of the verbal defence. Such actions represent gross negligence.

Factory mentality

Fourth, every university must conduct an actual viva defence of PhD students in the American or British methods. The Kenyan method all too often involves a student presenting a basic presentation on their dissertation and then different faculty provide comments for improvement, but the student does not respond and defend their knowledge, methods, or results. They just meekly take the comments and make the changes later in their written work.

Unfortunately, then a doctoral candidate could literally not understand anything they just presented and no one would know. In the American and British models, the student does not spend time presenting their research. The examiners have all read the dissertations with hundreds of written comments before the oral defence date. So, the examiners ask dozens of questions and the students must verbally respond on the spot during the oral defence. Under such a system, it stands very difficult for a doctoral student to fake knowledge.

Let us all push a groundswell of public support to change the turnstile PhD factory mentality and foster real knowledge attainment and rigour in all programmes.

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