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Digital training can help supervisors lift PhD output

Online education can help meet the increasing demand for self-paced professional development opportunities for academics. EPA/Jon Hrusa

Several African countries have increased the number of new universities and increased enrolments as part of an effort to boost tertiary education and development.

More recently, there has been an increased emphasis on doctoral degrees. Some countries have set ambitious targets for the number of doctoral degrees. And Nigeria and Kenya now demand that all university lecturers have doctoral degrees.

The push for higher doctoral output has increased postgraduate enrolments. But this has not necessarily translated into sufficient numbers of successful completions. One of the reasons for this is the need for well trained supervisors.

Across the world policy makers acknowledge the crucial role of supervision in postgraduate education. An online short training programme has been developed at Stellenbosch University in South Africa to provide support for supervisors. The training course is specifically aimed at supervisors at African universities.

What we found

The online course grew out of a seminar on doctoral quality at African universities in 2016. A proposal was made for an online short training programme for supervisors with a specific focus on the needs and conditions in African countries. In many universities doctoral students often have to pursue their research in resource-poor and adverse conditions.

The first offering in 2018 drew 152 enrolments and 135 enrolled in 2019. Further offerings are planned for 2020 and beyond. So far participants have come from 25 different African countries. The course has achieved a success rate of 73%.

This uptake and completion illustrate that there is clearly a demand for doctoral supervision training at African universities.

The course also provides an opportunity to find some answers to important questions. First, why higher doctoral enrolments may not always be translating into graduations. Second, why there are ongoing concerns about quality.

We posed these questions during the course and also analysed data from 25 789 online forum discussion posts and 123 essays submitted by the participants of the course.

All the participants held PhDs, representing a range of different fields of studies. There was close to a 50-50 distribution between the sciences and the humanities. They all acknowledged the challenges linked to the rapid expansion of doctoral programmes and enrolments in their countries. They maintained, nevertheless, that more doctorates were a national priority for economic and social development.

Many participants commented on the high drop-out rates in their countries. These are, for example, up to 50% reported at some universities in Kenya and up to 60% at some universities in South Africa. They also observed the long time it took to graduate – with an average of 6 years reported in some countries, but often longer.

The challenges for supervision and doctoral research identified correspond with the findings of the International University Association. These issues are largely related to resource constraints – physical and financial resources, infrastructure and human resources.


Among the most prominent institutional factors identified were deficient application and inadequate screening processes of prospective doctoral students. Universities, especially new ones, were ill prepared to provide and support doctoral programmes in the absence of well-functioning graduate schools and similar institutional support structures.

Inadequate library services and lack of an adequate technical and administrative infrastructure were among the other constraints.

In such an environment, the supervisor’s role goes beyond the academic dimensions of doctoral supervision. But many participants identified inadequate supervisor capacity as a major problem. In many universities a large number, if not a majority, of lecturers do not hold doctoral degrees themselves. So they cannot supervise the increasing numbers of doctoral students.

Supervisors were stretched thin. And, in many instances, they had to supervise students on topics outside their area of expertise.

Supervisors reported that they often felt ill prepared to supervise and mentor doctoral students. This can lead to outdated and poor supervision practices (for example, working in isolation, long delays in feedback, superficial feedback limited to formal and grammatical issues in stead of substantial issues). This was widely seen as one of the reasons for high drop-out rates and questionable quality standards.


Many participants saw solutions coming from the same source: the supervisor. Supervisors are expected to play a multifaceted role in their charge’s doctoral project. They are the editor, librarian, administrative support, project manager and personal mentor. They are also the teacher of digital and information literacy skills and writing skills, and the examiner.

Nevertheless, many participants saw this online training course as an opportunity to make a real difference in their institutions. They could benefit students by shaping better institutional policies, promoting responsible and ethical research practices, and maintaining good research standards.

Participants further highlighted the need for more experienced supervisors to mentor novice supervisors.

The success of this course demonstrates that online education can be used effectively to meet the increasing demand for self-paced professional development opportunities for academics at African universities. This comes with significant benefits in relation to scale and cost. Yet, there is still a tendency to focus on the constraints. This includes issues such as limited internet connectivity, limited digital resources and low levels of digital literacy.

Our experience demonstrated these were indeed challenges. But they weren’t deal breakers. For example we found we had to strike a balance between learning material that could be downloaded for offline learning, and interactive, online learning activities.

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