Quality doctoral programmes are vital for development
Ghana’s National Accreditation Board was established in 1993 by the government of Ghana for four primary purposes.
One is giving official quality approval to both public and private tertiary education institutions in terms of curricula content and standards of academic programmes.
Two, it constantly monitors tertiary education institutions to ensure compliance with normative standards and ethics of organisation, governance, academic and administrative leadership.
Three, it ensures that education institutions satisfy appropriate standards in physical facilities such as classrooms, laboratories, academic and professional staffing.
Four, it determines the equivalence of degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded by institutions inside and outside Ghana.
Should Ghana’s National Accreditation Board (NAB) also evaluate the quality of doctoral degree programmes in Ghanaian universities? Such evaluation functions undoubtedly fall within the orbit of NAB’s legal role as state external quality assurance agency.
The need for these evaluation functions arises from the statistical fact that doctoral degree enrolment and graduation from Ghanaian universities are increasing steadily.
According to tertiary education statistics published by NAB, in the academic years between 2011-12 and 2015-16, doctoral degree enrolment in public universities averaged about 900 students. At private universities the number was 39 for 2014-15 and 85 for 2015-16. The total doctoral degree output of public universities for 2012-13 was 65 students compared to 1,854 students for 2014-15.
Given all these statistics, one begins to ask whether the universities producing those graduates complied with any additional quality assurance standards beyond those of their original accreditation.
If they did, what quality assurance standards are applicable to doctoral programmes or universities offering doctoral programmes in Ghana?
These questions are critical in that researchers have asserted that few evaluation systems and quality control mechanisms are in place in African countries to ensure the quality of doctorates awarded by universities.
In addition, the doctorate title confers a lot of social respectability and honour in Ghana. The reason is that those who attain a doctoral degree are regarded as having reached the highest summit of the knowledge pyramid.
It is believed that a journey to the top of the knowledge pyramid is marked by singular discipline, fortitude and self-sacrifice as well as accumulating knowledge. That is why NAB should take appropriate measures to protect the integrity of doctoral programmes offered in Ghana.
What happens elsewhere?
In a number of countries across the globe, accreditation of doctoral programmes is significantly different from that of undergraduate and graduate programmes.
Consequently, in some jurisdictions, two or three universities combine their resources to offer joint doctoral degree programmes, while others strategically concentrate on offering one or two accredited doctoral degree programmes according to their capacity.
Nevertheless, it is open knowledge that NAB has listed on its website the names of eight institutions that offer doctoral degree programmes despite the fact that they are unaccredited.
These institutions offer doctoral degree programmes though they hardly offer any credible masters degree programmes. Meanwhile, the NAB characteristically continues to bark at them like a toothless bulldog, so to speak, while the institutions operate with sheer impunity.
In fact, leaders of those unaccredited institutions are fully aware that historically the NAB has demonstrated that it does not have any enforcement teeth to close down institutions that have flouted its policies or regulations.
The NAB must ensure that Ghanaian universities offer quality designed doctoral programmes, delivered by quality faculty for quality students. Quality in this context is conceptualised as ‘fit for purpose’ with regard to academic, professional and industrial career pathways. Overall, doctoral degree programmes should contribute to Ghana’s development efforts and priorities.
Quality of faculty members
Normally, the faculty members of a university who deliver doctoral seminars, supervise doctoral theses and serve on doctoral thesis committees are experts in their chosen fields of specialisation. ‘Experts’ here implies those who have a track record of research, varied professional experiences, are renowned nationally or internationally as practitioners in a specific field or have made impactful contributions to their domains of expertise.
Certainly, quality faculty members are holders of doctoral, PhD or professional degrees. However, a university whose faculty members are intellectually inactive, have not made or are not making any contributions to their specialised domain, do not constitute quality faculty even if they possess doctoral degrees. Indeed, Ghanaian universities without a cadre of quality faculty should be disqualified from running doctoral programmes.
Quality of students
Students admitted onto doctoral programmes should have adequate academic or professional preparation. Adequate academic preparation could be verified by academic records as well as projects designed and executed by the applicants. Sufficient professional preparation or experience could also be checked by the references or résumés that applicants provide.
In short, quality students are determined by the nature, expectations and outcomes of doctoral programmes. For instance, if it is an expectation that graduates from a doctorate programme in business management should be able to make data-informed decisions, prospective students should be expected to provide documentary evidence of basic knowledge of statistics, along with rudimentary knowledge and skills in methods of data collection.
Quality of doctoral programme design
A quality doctoral programme is one designed in keeping with labour market information about actual or potential career opportunities available for people with doctorates.
Simply put, what type of careers are available now or will be available in the near future for doctoral students after completion of their programmes of study? What skill sets, knowledge and dispositions are required for those careers?
Doctoral programmes must have a clear mission, expectations, outcomes, course structure, graduation and admission requirements.
Elements of these include, but are not restricted to: student access to reference resource materials, research tools and databases; development of advanced research skills in the specialisation they are in, culminating in an original, substantive research project; acquisition of techniques for communicating and presenting research methodology and findings to various audiences; appropriate preparation for a career in academia, industry, government and community; and a funding strategy to support the programme for the expected length of study of all students.
Any university that has doctoral programmes must have well-resourced libraries and laboratories where doctoral students could access literature (hard copies or online), search for issues and trends in a field, conduct research and sharpen their insight. A university that does not have such facilities should be disqualified from offering doctoral programmes.
All doctoral programmes must hone students’ advanced research skills. Those research skills will be applied not only when completing course assignments but also when conducting thesis research that contributes significantly to students’ chosen fields.
In developing advanced research skills, doctoral students cultivate problem-framing skills, the ability to conduct literature reviews (including print, photographic, audio and video sources), collect data, conduct data analysis and communicate their findings. While these are a broad range of skills and knowledge, their application and usefulness cut across every sector of society.
In a developing country such as Ghana, research audiences are more diverse in their educational backgrounds. Thus, it is extremely crucial that doctoral students learn how to tailor the communication and presentation of their research to the needs of varied audiences.
They need to be able to summarise or explain technical or theoretical concepts while preserving the integrity of the main themes of their research methodology and findings.
Consequently, a doctoral programme must offer at least two advanced seminar courses in research theory and practice. The courses must be taught by practising researchers who are knowledgeable about the problems, challenges, opportunities and limitations of their fields.
A university that does not have such course offerings taught by practising or experienced researchers is not ready to run doctoral programmes.
Furthermore, doctoral candidates should have access to academic support and counselling which enhances their awareness of the potential application of their research across different sectors of society and develops a deeper understanding of students’ personal strengths, interests and career goals.
In other words, every doctoral student must have an experienced academic advisor.
A recent South African research study has highlighted the importance of doctoral advising or supervising in relation to the quality of doctoral programmes. Indeed, it has been repeatedly observed that doctoral advising or supervising plays a central role in preparing doctoral candidates to contribute to research and society.
More specifically, some South African researchers have stated that doctoral students need significant support in research methodology, academic writing and knowledge of theory. Thus, a university that does not have the resources or capacity, either because their faculty members are overloaded or overworked, to provide access to individualised doctoral advising/supervising should be ineligible to offer doctoral programmes.
Finally, a doctoral programme should provide full or partial financial assistance for students until they finish. At present, a majority of doctoral students are compelled to rely on personal savings and financial assistance from family members to fund their studies. This puts enormous pressure on students, especially those from impoverished families, hindering them from concentrating on their studies. This is a disincentive to prospective doctoral students.
Although this situation may be viewed entirely as an equity issue, it is also palpably a development issue in that Ghana needs a community of researchers in and outside of academia to create knowledge to solve the myriad problems plaguing its development.
A doctoral programme must, as a matter of urgency, include a funding strategy, whether it is partial scholarship, a waiver of tuition fees, soft loans, financial grants or teaching assistantships.
As the NAB statistics on tertiary education show, all doctoral programmes in Ghana are offered on a full-time basis. This suggests that a funding strategy is an important part of doctoral programmes.
It is noteworthy that certain accredited institutions do not have quality faculty, financial and the material resources to operate doctoral programmes; although such institutions may have the capacity to run undergraduate or masters programmes.
This applies to both public and private universities. That is because some public and private universities, from our evaluation, should not be allowed to offer any doctoral degree programmes.
Doctoral programmes require a separate, vigorous accreditation process to ensure their quality and integrity. The NAB should develop and put in place a framework of doctoral education in Ghana to provide guidelines for universities that intend to offer PhD programmes. At the same time, some elements of the framework could be used for accrediting doctoral programmes.
Universities whose doctoral programmes fall short of the doctoral accreditation criteria should be allowed a grace period of one year to correct any anomalies. However, a university that fails to correct any detected anomalies in its doctoral programme within the grace period must have its programme closed down immediately.
Moreover, a review of doctoral programmes should be conducted every three years in order to maintain quality and safeguard their integrity. Failure to do so leads to poor doctoral degree programmes without any real public or private benefit.
As African higher education experts agree, doctoral degree programmes should never be designed as just an avenue for intellectual curiosity or as a symbol of social honour. Rather, they should be used as a tool for addressing critical aspects of African national development.
Fidelia Fredua-Kwarteng works in government in Canada, as a senior programme advisor. Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant in Canada.
Published at Thu, 17 Oct 2019 06:00:42 +0000