It is something that some will definitely link to a controversial policy that was introduced by the recently resigned University of Botswana Vice Chancellor, Professor Thabo Fako.
According to the analysis of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA), the proportion of UB academics with a PhD has dropped by 8 percent. This makes UB the second worst performer in a group of eight flagship African public universities that are part of an ongoing HERANA study programme. HERANA is based at the Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET) in Cape Town, South Africa. Three universities in the HERANA study grew their proportions of staff with a PhD substantially ÔÇô University of Ghana by 11 percent, University of Cape Town by 10 percent and University of Mauritius by 9 percent. Both the University of Makerere and University of Eduardo Mondlane saw a marginal increase of 2 percent. The University of Nairobi was the worst performer with its proportion of PhDs going down by a whopping 21 percent.
Part of the reason for the PhD decline at UB is to be found in a policy that was introduced by Fako, reversing one that was introduced during the tenure of his predecessor, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile. During the latter’s tenure, only lecturers who held a PhD could be promoted to the position of associate professor. Under Fako, one didn’t need a PhD to become a professor. One UB professor says that the bigger tragedy is that the University of Botswana’s Academic and Senior Support Staff Union supports Fako’s policy because it makes elevation to associate professor much easier than has always been the case.
All of the flagship African universities have taken the strategic decision to become research-intensive and HERANA has identified nine key characteristics of research universities in the African context. One is “Staff qualifications (percentage with a PhD) and rank (percentage of professors)”. Elsewhere, Nico Cloete, the Coordinator of HERANA, has been quoted as saying that their research measures staff qualifications by the percentage with a PhD and by rank ÔÇô the proportion of professors ÔÇô and showed the importance of the PhD in relation to research.
“The PhD is now the big thing in Africa,” said Cloete, adding that “If you want research projects with postgraduate students, you need a reasonable proportion of staff with a PhD.”
Research by HERANA and other think tanks in South Africa has highlighted a strong correlation between proportions of academics with doctorates, and research outputs. According to Cloete, this shows clearly that people who publish without a PhD are an exception, and that within the competitive global economy, the relationship between publishing and having a PhD is getting stronger.
“This brings us back to the importance of more staff with PhDs at research-led institutions,” he said.
PhD is even bigger in other parts of the world. Last week, Tom Cotton a United States senator from Arkansas, said that the United States should reserve its non-immigrant H-1B visas for PhDs and not mid-level workers.
An October 2013 conference sponsored by the National Research Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York heard that Africa needs tens of thousands more PhDs in order to renew an ageing professoriate, staff the rapidly expanding higher education field, boost research and generate the high-level skills growing economies need.
HERANA says that countries that already have high levels of doctorate production (Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom) have an output that is growing at around 5 percent or less, while fast-developing countries are growing doctoral output at more than 7 percent, with Mexico (17 percent) and China (40 percent) increasing at astronomical rates. For the first time since the 1950s, the US is now the world’s second-largest producer of PhDs after China where some 50 000 candidates graduated with doctorates across all disciplines in 2009.
Ironically, HERANA says that in 2014, the average annual increases at sub-Saharan African universities were well below 10 percent, “with the exception of institutions such as Ghana, Makerere and Botswana, all of which started from very low bases in 2001.”