One of the policy fads sweeping Africa right now is the idea that all teaching staff should possess PhDs. It’s now policy in Nigeria, and a number of other countries. I’m not sure where this policy priority came from, but it’s a terrible idea, diverting resources away from where they’re most needed at a time when the system is straining under the weight of ever-growing demand.
“Wait a minute”, I hear you say. “Who can be against having more qualified teachers? Why not have a higher entrance standard for new faculty?” If only it were that simple.
The key here is to understand how the higher education hiring process actually works in developing countries. In the west, individuals go about the business of becoming PhDs on their own, finding funding from various sources as necessary/possible. Universities then take their pick of candidates who have managed to get that far. This means universities almost entirely externalize the cost of training their academic workforce.
In Africa, where PhD programs are thin on the ground, it usually doesn’t work that way. There aren’t a lot of young scholars there who have the money and academic capital to make it into, and through, the western graduate school system, and of those that do, a fair few will stay in the west to earn higher pay. So what’s an African university to do?
The answer is that potential “faculty” are often identified at the Master’s or even Bachelor’s level, and given jobs as lecturers (in countries like Uganda, a rather high proportion of lecturers have no qualification above a Bachelor’s degree). Over time, the university pays them to get higher qualifications. Until fairly recently that meant Master’s Degrees; now it means Doctoral degrees. So, when an African policy-maker says, “let’s make sure everyone has a PhD”, what he/she is really saying is: “let’s saddle institutions with higher staff development costs”.
(Institutions of course don’t always mind this; more PhDs means more prestige, and for the individual involved it’s an unmitigated bonus.)
But these higher staff costs have implications. In sub-Saharan Africa, where per-student expenditures run between $1500-$2000 per year, spending $20K/year or more training one staff person up to PhD level is a significant sacrifice. Making it a policy to do this for as many staff as possible, so that every faculty member can have a PhD, is a policy that will likely end up inhibiting access at public institutions in the short-term.
Of course, African universities aren’t wrong to want to upgrade their staff; it’s just that a little perspective on how quickly they need to do it – and the trade-offs it entails – need to be taken into account. Significantly, China, India, and Latin America are a long way from the 100% line African universities are chasing, and none of them are making it anything like the priority it is in Africa. Ultimately, this begs the question: why should the world’s poorest-funded universities adopt the world’s most expensive staff development policies?