Quickly probe PhDs, make report public

Thursday June 27 2019

EDITORIAL
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The uproar over the unprecedented large number of doctorate degrees awarded by a single university at a go puts the spotlight on quality of education and training in institutions of higher learning. And it adds to the ongoing debate about how the universities are organised and managed.

At policy level, universities are under instruction to raise the number of postgraduates at master’s and doctoral degree levels. In 2014, the Commission for University Education (CUE) directed universities to raise the number of PhDs, committing that only those with higher degrees would take up teaching and research assignments at the institutions. This created a rush by many lecturers who had master’s degrees to meet the new requirement.

But outside that, and in view of the admission boom that universities enjoyed in the halcyon years of parallel degree programmes, many students progressed to pursue postgraduate courses, providing a large pool for PhD candidates. A supply-driven scenario played out and universities easily cashed in on that.

However, there has never been a dramatic rise in the number of lecturers, especially at doctoral and professorial levels. And these are the people sufficiently qualified to teach and supervise doctoral students. A 2016 CUE report on student enrolment and qualifications of lecturers showed there was marked dissonance.

Most universities then — and, arguably, now — did not have a large pool of academics to run postgraduate courses. In some universities, the only professors were those in administrative positions as vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, principals, deans or heads of department. The rank and file of lecturers were master’s holders, meaning that, in some cases, students completed degree programmes without having been taught by a professor.

This general scenario provides the basis for questioning how Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) was able to graduate 118 doctorates and the bulk, 89, from one college, that of human resource development. Acutely alarming was the report that up to 10 candidates were supervised by one professor. It is too early to make judgments and that is why we exhort CUE, which has seized itself of the matter, to thoroughly interrogate the validity and legitimacy of the degrees.

We note the sentiment of JKUAT’s management that negative publicity and condemnations risk damaging the qualifications of the graduates and the image of the institution. But that is only if the questions being raised are unfounded. CUE must, therefore, determine how the PhDs were supervised and defended and, consequently, publicise its findings to clarify the matter.

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