Calls to boost universities’ PhD science Training Capacity

Editor's note:

This article appeared in the University World News, issue No.462

Gilbert Nakweya
June 02, 2017

Strengthening the capacity of East African universities to train PhD and post-doctoral academics in areas such as human nutritional sciences, agriculture, technology, engineering and mathematics is urgently needed to develop local scientific capacity and help the region to achieve its development goals. 

This was among the views expressed by higher education experts and scientists as well as government and private sector delegates at the sixth Kenya National Science Week, held in Nairobi from 22-26 May. They included five vice-chancellors and heads of research institutes and colleges from local and international universities. 

“Building local capacity for quality higher education will help the region’s institutions to improve their research, innovation and international rankings,” said Professor Richard Deckelbaum, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University in the United States. 

Deckelbaum, a professor of nutrition and also the head of the African Nutritional Sciences Research Consortium or ANSRC, highlighted the fact that Sub-Saharan Africa has comparatively few researchers and urged universities to do what they could to build local capacity. 

12-member consortium

The ANSRC, as revealed at the conference, is partnering with top universities from Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda to help build local capacity in science, linking health with nutrition, agriculture and biotechnology. The initiative is being implemented in a consortium model comprised of 12 academic and research institutions in East Africa. 

The ANSRC also plans to establish new centres of excellence to support basic research in nutritional and agricultural sciences and review proposals from universities to justify their capabilities to host centres of excellence.

According to statistics shared at the conference, South Africa and Senegal top the list of countries with the most researchers at 800 and 600 per million inhabitants respectively. Other countries like Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia have fewer than 100 researchers per million inhabitants. 

Additionally, it was observed that the region was experiencing a lack of adequately qualified staff to undertake teaching, supervision and mentorship of students, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects.

Shortage of high-level academics

“East Africa has a severe shortage of doctoral graduates to teach masters level and PhD programmes and lead research in the universities,” Deckelbaum pointed out. He said less than 1% of university learners were enrolled in PhD programmes, including nutritional and agricultural sciences. 

“We need increased number of PhDs to help improve the quality of our education,” said Dr Murugi Ndirangu, director of Columbia Global Centers in Nairobi. In an interview with University World News, Ndirangu said that high quality doctoral training imparts critical thinking, enhances innovation and develops leadership skills key to the transformation of the region.

She said it was important for regional universities to become empowered to train local scientists and engineers to seek solutions to local development challenges such as climate change, undernutrition and food insecurity. This, she said, would help to build local research capacity sustainably and decrease over-reliance on foreign researchers.

Whereas some institutions such as the University of Nairobi in Kenya and Uganda’s Makerere University were lauded for improving their efforts to build local capacity in research, experts were also concerned that little was being done to translate research work by local universities into policy. 

More funding

Experts urged regional governments and international research organisations to increase funding to help local universities train more postgraduates, especially in STEM.

“We need to bring African universities into the respected group of top science training institutions,” Deckelbaum told University World News. This, he said, will be achieved through increased funding to help the universities establish centres of excellence, hire more skilled staff, and construct state-of-the-art facilities such as laboratories and libraries. 

Simon Carter, Sub-Saharan Africa’s regional director for the International Development Research Centre, said more funds should also be directed to building the capacity of young women interested in STEM. This, he said, would help address the challenges of development but also help young women take advantage of existing opportunities.