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I must confess that I had never really made an explicit connection in my mind between a country’s social and economic development and the number of graduates holding a PhD or ‘doctor of philosophy’ degree. But my perspective on this shifted somewhat when, in April 2013, the Carnegie Cooperation of New York invited SciDev.Net to collaborate on an initiative aimed at “developing and retaining the next generation of African academics” — in this case, scientists and scholars with both research and teaching responsibilities at university level.

The project’s underlying premise is that the PhD and international development are inextricably linked. And, in the African context, the central idea is that, as the continent enjoys a period of relative peace and stability, and unprecedented economic growth, it will require a revival of its neglected higher education sector to make the African dream of future prosperity, wellbeing, and scientific and technological independence a reality. [1]

So how precisely does an academic title fit into this? Well, that’s what our series of articles and multimedia products, which we are calling ‘Africa’s PhD Renaissance’, seeks to explore. We want to use the series as a springboard to raise awareness of the issues and stimulate debate on the subject — which for many remains contentious.

Research of social benefit

The history of the modern PhD spans roughly two centuries. It started life in the early nineteenth century in Germany before spreading out to the United States, then to the United Kingdom and then progressively to other parts of the world. What made the degree a success in academic circles was that it required scholars, under close supervision, to embark on a period of original research leading to a dissertation or thesis.

From its earliest days, the doctoral degree became the benchmark for measuring a student's ability to carry out scholarly research in both the sciences and the humanities. Scholars taking the long, expensive and often arduous road to the doctorate tend to be motivated by a mixture of their love of knowledge (hence ‘philosophy’), curiosity, personal development, a desire for recognition from the academic community and an aspiration to be of service to society.

“The future development of Africa depends on high-level skills — not just occupational skills in a utilitarian sense, but intellectual skills.”

 Cheryl de la Rey, University of Pretoria

A heady mix by any standards. It’s the research bit and the desire to help others that underpin the relevance of PhDs to development.

Last year, in South Africa, Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor and principal at the University of Pretoria (see opinion), told me that the PhD is critical to her continent. “The future development of Africa,” she said, “depends on high-level skills — not just occupational skills in a utilitarian sense, but intellectual skills.”

Indeed, the PhD is increasingly hailed as a driver for economic development. Rapidly developing countries around the world are stepping up their production of doctorates. Between 1998 and 2006, for example, Mexico saw a 17 per cent increase, while for China there was a staggering 40 per cent rise. [2]

Africa is not on par with this trend (see our interactive map), and we can see an example of the consequences of this reflected in the publication of research papers. South Africa’s National Research Foundation notes that, while the global production of scientific papers has roughly doubled over the past 20 years, the contribution from Sub-Saharan Africa represented a mere 0.7 per cent of this.

Funding diversion

So what’s holding Africa back? The finger of blame, certainly according to many academics I have spoken to, points at the UN’s decision in 2000 to prioritise universal primary education in its Millennium Development Goals. Africa’s higher education sector has, as a result, become woefully underfunded and under-resourced, leading to a crumbling university infrastructure and a haemorrhaging of Africa’s academic lifeblood to universities outside the continent.

The appetite to reverse this situation with the next set of global development goals is fostering a fresh surge of optimism on the continent. Our coverage aims to showcase individual success stories, but also to critically assess the value of PhDs and doctoral research to development issues — from the role of policymakers and the private sector to creating opportunities for women in higher education and engaging Africa’s diaspora.

We launch the series with a special focus on South Africa, which, in the words of Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, is “two worlds in one” — with a middle class enjoying a quality of life equivalent to or better than anything in Western Europe, and yet with half its population living on less than US$2 a day (listen to our Q&A podcast with Habib).

South Africa is also co-host to a project that will stretch the country’s research capacity, its international cooperation and technological ambition. The SKA — Square Kilometre Array — telescope will be the world’s most advanced radio telescope, set to peer further into deep space than ever before.

It is anticipated that the project will inspire young people to become scientists, mathematicians and engineers. The design and construction of the telescope will demand high levels of skills and expertise. And PhDs? Yes, it is hoped that the project will fund local educational projects that will, in time, help to fill the PhD supply pipeline. If ever there was a project that can gauge the impact of the PhD on development, this must be it, as it will tap into the skills and research base of South Africa’s universities (the IT infrastructure, for example is to be home grown), provide job opportunities for the local population and hopefully inspire future generations of young scientists.

We at SciDev.Net are excited about our part in highlighting PhD success stories and, in the process, assisting efforts to ‘grow’ doctorates in Africa. Given both the profound respect that PhDs elicit worldwide and the space for creativity and new ideas that working on a doctorate provides, we are persuaded that the Carnegie Corporation’s programme is on to something important. Look out for stimulating PhD stories on our website over the coming months. 

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


[1] Aspiring Africa (The Economist, 2 March 2013)

[2] David Cyranoski and others The PhD factory (Nature, 21 April 2011)