PhD crisis in Uganda’s private universities

Copyright: Jon Spaull

Speed read

  • As private universities expand in East Africa education standards may be falling
  • Regulatory failures and a scarcity of PhD-qualified staff are major problems
  • But private universities will likely play a big role in Africa’s education revolution

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In 2013 all 66 doctorates awarded by Kampala International University in the previous two years were declared invalid by the Uganda National Council for Higher Education. The council said they did not meet required academic standards, forcing the university to stop awarding PhDs and investigate the problem.

Private universities like Kampala International University (KIU) are mushrooming across East Africa. So was the slamming of these PhDs symptomatic of a large-scale dilution in academic quality as private sector education expands? Or was it part of the inevitable learning process, as a new institution looks to compete with the more well-established public universities?

The truth is probably a mixture of the two. Now a SciDev.Net investigation reveals questions not just over KIU’s conduct but also the body purporting to regulate it.

Private boom

The demand for higher education far outstrips supply in Africa’s long-neglected public universities. For decades governments have focused on primary and secondary education, so there are more students than ever clamouring to enter higher education. With the public universities run-down, private ones have emerged to fill the void. Soon profit-focussed private universities will outnumber government-funded institutions in Africa. [1]

In the East African Community there are 361 universities offering 4,700 higher education programmes. In the case of Uganda there was only the one university, Makerere, up until 1988. By 1998 this had risen to seven and by the end of 2014 there were 36 universities — all but eight of which were private. Uganda has long been seen as a centre of academic learning in East Africa, partly because of the good reputation of Makerere University and partly because its universities charge lower fees compared with neighbouring countries. Yet this rapid expansion of the private sector presents a region-wide challenge to governments: how to maintain quality in the higher education sector.

That task falls to the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), established in 1980 by the East African Community to coordinate the development of higher education and research in its member states of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda (since expanded to include Burundi and Rwanda). 

According to the council’s executive secretary, Mayunga Nkunya, IUCEA was established “to guard against the devaluation of quality in higher education with this rapid expansion”.

It has tried to harmonise quality assurance across its member countries since 2006, yet currently only 105 of the region’s 361 universities are signed to IUCEA. The council has proposed that membership be mandatory and is hoping this will be agreed later this year by the East African Community. It then plans to publish a register of all accredited programmes to act as a seal of approval for them.

Uganda’s academic scene

In Uganda private universities have also started to move into the postgraduate market, offering masters course and in a few cases PhDs.

The country’s National Council Higher Education was established by the government’s universities and other tertiary institutions act of 2001 to ensure “excellence, access and relevance of Uganda’s universities to national development”. As one of the member countries’ regulatory bodies it works in partnership with the IUCEA to assure quality in Uganda for all East African students.

KIU is one of the largest private universities in Uganda, with around 10,000 students. Established in 2001, it quickly expanded and now has a second campus in Tanzania. Its expansion was so rapid it began offering unaccredited PhDs in humanities in 2007 — two years before the Uganda National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) gave it the right to do so in 2009.

Dissenting voices

Sarah Kyolaba is the graduate research and teaching coordinator for the College of Higher Degrees and Research at KIU. She is a product of the university, having obtained her first degree, masters and a PhD there. So perhaps it is unsurprisingly she is a proponent of private universities. 

Sarah Kyolaba
Sarah Kyolaba. Credit: Jon Spaull

She says that for too long in Africa there has been a deliberate ploy amongst the older generation of academics to stymie the careers of younger ones, for fear of the competition they pose. She believes universities like KIU are gradually “washing away” this culture, challenging the notion that PhD holders should be in their fifties (the average age of PhD graduates in Uganda is 48) but rather, as in Europe, be predominantly young academics who still have the “guts to be productive”.

One of the criticisms often levelled at KIU and other private universities like it is that their PhDs are taught, with only a small research component. Kyolaba rejects this criticism. All KIU’s doctoral students have to publish at least two articles in peer reviewed journals, she says.

Nevertheless, eyebrows have been raised in Uganda’s academic community at the sheer volume of PhDs that KIU is churning out. In 2011 — only its second year of awarding PhDs — KIU graduated 24 of them. In 2012 this increased to 42. How could a university this young produce a similar number of PhDs to Makerere, the country’s oldest and most prestigious university?

Like other African countries, Uganda has few PhD holders: only about 1,000. Fewer than 12 per cent of academic staff hold a doctorate.

Given the scarcity of PhDs in Uganda, some academics question whether KIU has the requisite qualified staff to supervise that many PhD students. But Kyolaba says supervisors are drawn from other universities in Uganda and elsewhere, as well as retired academics who taught at Makerere.

“When someone says that KIU produces low quality then I say that all universities in Uganda produce low quality — because these are the same people,” she says.

PhD post-mortem

In response to academic disquiet, NCHE set up a taskforce in 2013 to examine the 66 PhDs KIU awarded in 2011 and 2012. It ruled that all were substandard: eight needed minor corrections, 36 needed major revisions, and 22 were beyond revision.

The taskforce was highly critical of the KIU processes and systems for regulating PhD quality. They discovered that seven of the PhD supervisors did not have PhDs themselves, while others held PhDs from universities not recognised by NCHE. It also criticised the high ratio of supervisors to students — in one case a supervisor tended 14 students — and found plagiarism and ill-conceived theses.

Kyoloba does not accept all these findings, and she is angry about how NCHE has dealt with KIU in general.

She says the council should have monitored the university and stepped in to rectify any perceived problems as they arose.

“When you give [a university] a charter you are supposed to monitor what they do,” she says. “You should not just do a post mortem on someone who is already dead.”

She also accuses the NHCE of relying on academics from rival institutions to assess the papers. “There is an issue of rivalry between the universities … what do you expect?” she says.

Her allegations aren’t unfounded. The Council’s executive director, John Opuda-Asibo, took up his position in 2013 after chairing the taskforce into KIU while he was acting vice-chancellor of Kyambogo University, the second largest public university after Makerere. 

John Opuda-Asibo
John Opuda-Asibo. Credit: Jon Spaull

He sympathises with the view that NCHE failed in its duty to monitor and advise KIU whilst the students were studying, but argues that ultimately, as an autonomous institution, KIU must bring “itself out of that quagmire”.  He says that it was not a lack of capacity but rather a failure to follow procedures that KIU itself had established that led to the substandard PhDs.

Opuda-Asibo is keen to take a corrective, rather than punitive stance, and is pleased that KIU have not challenged NCHE’s ruling, working with the Council to correct its mistakes.  The NCHE has since approved 22 of the 66 PhDs. 

Duplicate courses

Aside from dodgy PhDs, the IUCEA has another concern relating to East Africa’s burgeoning private universities: the proliferation of unregulated courses on offer.

Nkunya, IUCEA’s executive secretary, cites the example of one university in the region that advertises 610 programmes, which he sees as far too many for a small university. He thinks many of these are ‘duplicates’ — similar courses designed to encourage students to study both of them — and wants countries to do more to regulate this.

Ugandan law states that the NCHE must accredit higher education courses before they can be taught. But this hasn’t deterred several universities from offering unaccredited courses.

Two private universities have had their license to operate revoked by the NCHE for this: Fairland University in 2013 and Kayiwa International University in 2014. In October 2014 five universities, including Makerere, were reprimanded for teaching courses without applying for full accreditation from the NCHE. Students at Kyambogo University subsequently went on strike, fearful that their qualifications would not be recognised. 

Threat or “hiccup”?

Nkunya is not concerned by the expansion of private universities in itself, if they are properly regulated.

His biggest concern is the scarcity of PhD-qualified academics in East Africa. In the short term the situation will worsen, he thinks, as the current generation of academics retires and the higher education sector continues to expand. 

This pressure is forcing universities to hire staff who are not properly qualified, and the demand for academics with PhDs results in moonlighting, as underpaid lecturers “roam from one university to another”. As a result teaching and research are compromised as academics have no time for quality research, preparation, grading or interaction with students.

Opuda-Asibo sees these problems as merely an inevitable “hiccup” in a sector still in its infancy. For him, it’s no different from other countries who have experienced this same rapid expansion.

He appreciates though, that before the NCHE can be truly effective in guiding the sector through its growing pains, it needs more resources.

“We as a council are doing the right thing — but we could do better,” he says, citing problems such as the NCHE’s inadequate facilities and finances as obstacles. Currently the NHCE is working out of a premises owned by Kyambogo University. It has a workforce of just 40 and so has to hire consultants to help monitor universities across Uganda.

Opuda-Asibo has no doubt that private universities are making an important contribution to expanding the quantity and quality of higher education in Uganda.

If anything they are “rescuing the situation”, he says. “Some of the private universities at undergraduate level are already doing better than public universities.” 

He believes the NCHE just needs “to supervise them”, and persuade them to adhere to the agreed quality assurance measures and separate academic management from the interests of private owners. 
To this end NHCE is reviewing and developing a minimum standard and framework for masters and PhD degrees for the Uganda’s entire university system.

Back at KIU, Kyolaba says once the remaining issues of the 66 PhDs have been resolved, the university will resume awarding doctorates, aiming to graduate between 20 and 30 a year. She has no doubt that KIU will one day overtake Makerere as the most prestigious university in Uganda. 

Whether this bold claim will be realised only time will tell. But if Africa is to deliver on ambitious PhD training targets — the World Bank has called for the continent to train 10,000 PhDs in the next ten years — then private universities may have to be part of the mix. They will need effective monitoring and regulation to ensure that dream is not jeopardised.
Additional reporting by Esther Nakkazi.

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


[1] The careers and producitivity of doctorate holders: Uganda report 2012 (Uganda National Council for Science and technology, 2012)
[2] Wachira Kigotho New partnerships to support 10,000 new PhDs in Africa (University World News, 11 July 2014)