People’s attitudes towards and expectations of doctoral candidates have changed several times in Africa. During the 1960s and 1970s, as many colonial powers left the continent, doctoral graduates were valued as sophisticated scholars.
They were hailed as indigenous shapers of their countries’ democratic break from colonial practices. Their education was seen as being about equity, redress and autonomous voice.
My own interest in pursuing different ways of designing doctoral studies developed against this backdrop in the 1990s. At the time, South Africa was heading towards its own independence - not from traditional colonialism, but from apartheid rule.
Doctoral education as protest
The senior professors in our conservative South African faculty of education refused to support the recruitment of postgraduate students. They argued that prospective students were not prepared for this form of abstract theoretical work at such a high level. They suggested that there were more practical issues for South Africa’s teachers to deal with and insisted that pursuing a doctoral study was a “luxury” for those who should focus on their work in classrooms.
Their arguments exposed a great deal about these professors’ resistance to broadening the base of their exclusive club. They also betrayed the belief that doctoral studies should be about cloning the professors’ own world views. These attitudes led me to embrace doctoral education as a project of resistance to apartheid exclusion.
International influences brought a shift in attitudes. The global benchmarks of a quality education system were redirected towards increasing the enrolment of primary and secondary learners. Multinational institutions supported developing countries to invest exclusively in these targets.
In recent years there has been another shift. Some have argued that revitalising education in Africa relies on respecting and guarding the relationship between learning at all levels. This includes learning at universities.
This shift has seen PhD studies revalued. They can be used to develop planning systems, generate critical thinking about current practices, form the backbone for policy development and help with monitoring and evaluation.
If PhD graduates are to fulfil these roles, PhD education’s structure and form must be reformed. How can this be done?
Change at all levels
One aspect of the system that needs to be challenged is the traditional model of a master-apprenticeship relationship between supervisor and student. Some institutions are already exploring newer models of learning that have cohorts of students working collaboratively with their supervisor. It is also becoming common to have more than one supervisor helping an individual or group of doctoral students.
Doctoral supervision relationships now span departments, institutions and borders. Partnerships have been formed between and across African universities. They have European and Asian counterparts.
For example, my institution – the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa – has two such programmes. One involves the Mauritius Institute of Education. The university also offers a PhD in Higher Education in partnership with the universities of Tampere and Helsinki in Finland, Uganda’s Management Institute and Makerere University, and Yaounde I in Cameroon. These partnerships allow different institutions to share theoretical, financial and human resources.
The profile of the African doctoral student is also changing. Increasingly, obtaining a doctorate isn’t about qualifying to enter a single disciplinary department in academia. Candidates are no longer conventional students who have recently completed their masters studies in the same discipline. They are usually older and probably studying part-time while working with specific family and career path needs.
The student brings a range of practical experiences from years of service within particular fields. Often, though, they are crossing over into other areas of study. This cross-pollination can create new directions for alternative knowledge production.
New forms of doctorates have emerged to cater for such diversity. These include a professional doctorate, which draws industry, professions and academic knowledge together. Students can also pursue a doctorate by publications, such as books or monographs, or through other arts-based genres.
Universities are becoming more comfortable with the idea of a doctoral thesis that uses creative fictional writing, paintings, photographs and performing arts like dance and music.
New business, government, community and university partnerships are needed to fund and encourage these changes. Universities must create programmes, develop governance strategies and set up academic support structures to bring more doctoral students into the fold.
The future doctoral graduate must connect these multiple influences. They all compete for dominance in their present concerns and future aspirations. It is the responsibility of future doctoral education designers to bear this in mind.