In an audit of universities recently released by Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, a number of “irregularities” with regard to certification, examination, duration of courses and admissions were exposed.
Among the issues highlighted was the low completion rate among postgraduate students.
Statistics show that students take an average of three to four years to complete a two-year master’s degree course in most African countries.
Depending on the specific field, it takes an average of nine years to complete a three-year doctoral degree in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Kenya, as in many other parts of the world, only a fraction of all who join any graduate programme complete it. The rate is staggering. This wastage is even more mind-boggling when looked at from an economic perspective.
Many Kenyans fundraise, take loans or save aggressively to invest in graduate studies. While the Commission for University Education report did not give reasons for the poor completion rates, popular discourse often blames academics and institutional structures.
While this is debatable, graduate students also contribute significantly to the low completion rates. First, most graduate students make poor choices on where to enrol.
Postgraduate study is a growth process by which a student needs to develop as a scholar and expert under the thoughtful support and guidance of an academic “authority” in an area. Thus, the primary consideration in choosing a programme should be the quality of academic staff.
Most students simply fill out entry forms without doing a diligent search on the composition of the faculty and their area of expertise. The successful completion of a graduate degree often depends on the choice of supervisor.
The presence of PhDs in a department is a good sign for both quality and time to completion rates, but even more important is the extent to which the faculty members are active in research.
Second, many Kenyans join graduate studies when their lives are full of distractions. In my own experience, students who enrol for master’s degrees in their 20s complete in time and produce high-quality work. They often do not have huge social and economic obligations.
While graduate programmes attract non-residential students studying part-time, full-time residential students have a higher chance of completing earlier. Part-time study brings to the lecture rooms minds that are entangled in a myriad other distractions.
This is not the best mindset to wrestle and pin down a respectable graduate degree. In countries that have done well, the average age of master’s students is in the early to mid-20s while most PhD students begin their studies in their late 20s and early 30s.
Those who narrow the period between their undergraduate and postgraduate programmes tend to benefit most and often complete in time.
I have on occasion seen smart, diligent and committed graduate students in their 40s and 50s, but they are rare and far between. It is hardly surprising that some developed economies are reluctant to fund doctoral candidates above the age of 35.
Third, most graduate students have unclear motives for enrolling. Most see it as a way of getting ahead in a career rather than a quest to broaden knowledge. Thus, it is very common for graduate students to “go off the radar” for long periods and reappear either as a momentary break from job hunting or when bypassed in internal promotions.
But universities also make graduate studies very expensive. A regular graduate degree is way beyond the reach of the average Kenyan family.
With frequent higher education budget cuts, many who enrol for graduate studies drop out due to lack of funding. Stopping this wastage in graduate schools requires more elaborate strategies.
Dr Duncan Omanga is lecturer of media studies, Moi University. [email protected]