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The rise of the PhD in Africa

The Doctor of Philosophy, or the PhD, was once the domain of a relatively small body of research academics. In the twentieth century, and especially since the 1990s, however, the PhD has increased significantly in uptake and importance, receiving unprecedented levels of attention in the media and government education policy papers.

This heightened attention to the doctorate is linked to an increasing awareness, globally, of the importance of higher education in the knowledge economy, particularly with regard to high-level skills.  

Of interest is the dramatic increase of PhD graduates in developing countries.  For example, Mexico’s doctoral output grew by 17% and China’s by 40% between 1998 and 2006. This is in contrast to developed countries like Germany and the US where the doctoral output is only growing at a rate of about 5%.  In China, some 50 000 people graduated with PhDs in 2009.  This has everything to do with China’s policy of developing world-class universities, recognising that nurturing high-level skills is central to economic growth.

In contrast to other BRICS countries, South Africa is lagging behind when it comes to graduating PhDs.  Compared to China’s 50 000, for example, South Africa graduated around 1 400 in 2009.  In 2012, the country’s National Planning Commission (NPC) made some bold proposals to increase the number of academics with PhDs in South Africa – setting a target of more than 100 doctoral graduates per million by the year 2030.  South Africa currently produces 28 per million, which is low by international standards. To achieve the target of 100 per million, the country would need to graduate more than 5 000 PhDs per year, as against the current figure of 1 878.

Paul Alagidede, professor of finance  at Wits Business School (WBS), attributes the low PhD output in South Africa to a number of factors, the most dominant of which are funding and the ‘catch 22’ situation of a shortage of qualified doctoral supervisors.

He is optimistic about the future of PhD throughput in South Africa, however, and emphasises that top South African universities are a highly attractive option for many aspiring doctoral students from other African countries.

“The WBS PhD programme is the largest in South Africa and one of the most highly regarded in Africa. We attract top candidates from across Africa and create an environment where they can focus on research topics that are relevant to the advancement of business and society on our continent. We have students from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Zambia and of course South Africa, and some of the best faculty from across the continent so that our PhD is authentically African in perspective,” he says.

Professor Alagidede has published widely, predominantly on the topics of development and financial economics. He is also passionate about the doctoral process and takes his role as PhD supervisor extremely seriously. His eyes light up when he looks back to 2016, when four of his PhD candidates graduated within the space of two years.

“It was a joy working with them because their energy and enthusiasm fuelled the process. The candidates came from various parts of Africa, including Ghana and Zimbabwe, and their sheer determination enabled them to overcome numerous barriers, such as funding and visa requirements,” says Alagidede.

Some students have an easier time than others.  For Ghanaian graduate Gideon Boako, financial grants and awards helped significantly in overcoming the challenges of living away from home.  His thesis (in the field of finance) was highly rated by his external examiners who were impressed with his publication of four papers in international peer-reviewed journals and six additional papers under review during his year of study.  Boako attributes the speed and efficiency with which he completed his doctorate in part to the quality of teaching and facilities at Wits Business School.

“I chose Wits because it’s the highest ranked university in Africa according to Centre for World University Rankings, and I was not disappointed. As a research student, all I needed to function effectively were office accommodation, a functional and well-equipped library, constant flow of internet, access to journal articles and online books, proper mentoring, and anything that fosters an atmosphere conducive for learning. At WBS I had it all,” says Boako.

Good supervision, he says, is critical to the progress of any PhD student. “Not only does the depth of knowledge of one’s supervisor matter in the work of the PhD candidate, but also his turn-around time. I say without any equivocation that none of my write-ups was kept with Prof Alagidede for more than 48 hours on average.”

Asabea Ahwireng-Obeng, also from Ghana, attributes her success to quality supervision:  “The turnover time after I presented [Professor Alagidede] with sections of my work was exceptionally short. On the last Christmas of my PhD study, he spent the 25th and 26th December reading through my entire thesis. Furthermore, when he had an overseas conference, he printed and carried my thesis with him, read through it and commented on various sections of it before posting the corrected thesis to me.”

For Chris Motengwe, who completed a Masters in the field of Finance and Investment from WBS in 2013, Wits was a natural choice for his doctorate. “WBS is one of the leading business schools in the country whose curricula is customized to accommodate the needs of industry. Wits has a high academic ranking based on research outputs and the quality of study on offer.

“Study at the PhD level is extremely challenging.  The exceptional support I received from WBS made the journey enjoyable, leveraging me to the finishing line.”

“I was lucky enough to have a wonderful supervisor when completing my own doctorate in the UK,” Alagidede recalls. “It taught me how important it is to have a supervisor who is committed to the process, who delivers quick feed-back, and who hopefully brings encouragement and inspiration to the research process.”

He concludes that, while it is true that South Africa is currently lagging in terms of PhD output, especially when compared to other developing economies, he believes that the situation is turning around.

“Momentum is gathering, helped by the NPC’s ambitious - but doable - targets.  We have world class facilities in South Africa, and universities like Wits have excellent reputations on the rest of the continent.  I had an exceptional group of PhD candidates in 2016, and six more in the pipeline for graduation in 2017-18.  As faculty and students we need to inspire each other and feed off each other’s success.  That will keep the momentum going in graduating more and more PhDs on the continent.”

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