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Q&A: Revamping PhD training in Africa

Copyright: Anita Makri

Speed read

  • Countries that invested at the PhD level have made great strides

  • There’s a correlation between research culture and the quality of education

  • Courses must be revised so graduates can drive Africa’s development

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This month, 35 years ago, the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI) was established by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to help universities and research institutions across the continent pool their resources to more effectively contribute to the application of science and technology to African development. Peggy Oti-Boateng is ANSTI’s coordinator. She tells SciDev.Net about the development of distance learning and shared online teaching resources, and the need for more postgraduates to enhance teaching and research.

Can you tell me a little bit about ANSTI?

ANSTI is a network of African scientific and technological institutions. It’s made up of 192 member institutions in 37 countries. What we try to do is pull together resources in terms of human and research capacity and capabilities for enhancing science and technology education in Africa. It started in 1980 at the request of ministers of science in Africa.

Do you think higher education needs have changed since ANSTI started?

They have changed a lot. And I think ANSTI has played a pivotal role because, in the past, we didn’t have this many institutions that tried to pull African universities together or articulate the needs and challenges of African universities. But ANSTI over the years has been able to do that. And it’s done that very well through its network and the conference of vice-chancellors, provosts and deans of science, engineering and technology (COVIDSET). This has created a platform for university decision-makers, academics, policymakers and the private sector to come together and look to develop strategies for enhancing science and technology education.

Can you give me an example of such a strategy?

One of the strategies was to encourage training through information and communications technologies: lecturers come together to develop programmes and textbooks, and these are put on the internet for the use of other universities. We’ve also been instrumental in the development of distance learning programmes in Africa.

How important is it to have this sort of coordination across African countries? And are higher education needs similar enough?

Yes, higher education needs are similar in many African countries, hence the importance of ANSTI coordinating universities and becoming one voice for higher education training in Africa. ANSTI is also linked to UNESCO, which has the mandate for education in science and technology. UNESCO uses ANSTI as a driver for disseminating a lot of its programmes. So it’s a two-way thing.

As part of that strategy to coordinate higher education training, how strong is the focus on doctoral education?

The focus is not as strong as it could be because we have the big challenge of getting the numbers of scientists and engineers up, even at the BSc level. But we’re looking at other opportunities for developing the PhD programme. Through a partnership with the Carnegie Foundation, we have a split programme which allows doctoral students to work at their university, but gives them the opportunity to go to a laboratory elsewhere if the equipment they need does not exist in African universities.

How will more doctoral students make a better future?

The development of knowledge at the PhD level is very important. It’s where they can do high-level, in-depth research and innovation. UNESCO has clearly shown that countries that have invested at that level, such as Malaysia or Singapore, have made great strides. Hence the need for Africans to also invest in high-level education, particularly at the PhD level. PhDs are also the ones who will be teaching and enhancing research. So we need those numbers. It’s crucial for African governments to develop science and technology research, in particular at the PhD level.

That’s the argument for quantity, but there are some who see a tension between that and improving the quality of education.

Quality is important. There is a correlation, as I indicated earlier on, between the quality of PhDs and quality of teaching. It’s the ultimate research and it should be done well. It’s a culture of research which is developed by PhD researchers, and there’s a correlation between that and the quality of education.

Are you worried about job prospects for graduates? If there is this effort to increase numbers, can they find jobs and, if so, in what sectors?

That is why we need to revise the curricula, to make graduates useful to Africa’s developmental needs and agenda. One of the areas we are looking at is to encourage graduate entrepreneurship and commercialisation of research. It’s the way forward to reduce unemployment in Africa.

Is there any overarching message that you hear from the young people you talk to?

They want to see a change in the education system to make teaching and research more relevant to the job market. This is what students are looking for, and I think this has been well articulated by the policymakers as well. This is an area that we have to invest in.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

This is part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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