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Rising Opportunities in Africa?

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

Countries across Africa are seeking to expand higher education, and that will engender a massive need for Ph.D.s, reports Damtew Teferra, a professor at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, at Inside Higher Ed. And that, it seems to me, suggests opportunity for academics who want to use their research and teaching to advance international development as well as science.

"PhDs prepare the medical doctors for a healthy society; the engineers to build the roads, bridges, dams, hospitals and schools; the agriculturalists to ensure food security; the educators to shape the next generation of teachers, not to mention economists, lawyers, scientists, business specialists—all contributing to the development of a 'knowledge' society," he writes. "My intention here is to unequivocally state that building PhD programs is not simply to encourage 'intellectual curiosity' but to address a critical aspect of national development."

Countries including Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia aim to produce thousands of Ph.D.s a year, he explains. South Africa, which already graduates some 1700 Ph.D.s annually, plans to increase that to 5000 in the next decade and a half.

So why is this good news? After all, Africa isn't the first region to put in place a policy aimed at increasing the number of advanced-degreed scientists it produces as part of an economic growth initiative. These efforts often lead to overproduction of scholars who then end up underemployed.

What's different in Africa is that training more Ph.D.-level scholars requires more Ph.D.-level scholars, who currently are in short supply in Africa. If provided with adequate resources, these new initiatives should quickly improve opportunities in Africa for Western-trained scholars.

Many African countries have long sent their best students abroad for graduate study in the hope, often futile, that they would return and use their skills and knowledge for the betterment of their native lands. Many of them find superior opportunities, higher incomes, and better living conditions in the foreign countries where they are trained. (These new African initiatives may provide opportunities for citizens of non-African countries as well, especially if institutions run programs in English or other world languages.)

In a global market that seems stuffed to the gills with talent, but with a widespread dearth of opportunity, we welcome jobs for scholars wherever they may be. China is currently working hard—with considerable success—to lure home high-quality scientists trained and working in other countries. India, too, has greatly increased the scientific opportunities it can offer returning Indian nationals. Whether African nations will have the means and motivation to do likewise remains to be seen. They will need to provide jobs for their returning citizens that can compete with jobs overseas, with real opportunities to use their skills.

These African nations will need to tailor their programs to avoid producing too many or the wrong kinds of graduate degree holders for the local economies to absorb. In a number of developing countries, this already has led to frustration and under- and unemployment among bachelor's level graduates.

Indeed, large challenges abound in this drive for expansion, and much remains uncertain, Teferra notes. Nonetheless, "[a] number of initiatives are currently underway to expand postgraduate studies in Africa," he writes. "These include the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa (USHEPiA). AUC's Pan African University and the Nyerere Fellowship supported by European Union Commission, along with the Center of Excellence initiative funded by the World Bank are some of the emerging ones."

Over the long run, it's not yet clear what the various countries’ academic ambitions will mean for African and other Ph.D.-level scholars. Much more work is needed in critical areas: funding, preventing corruption, establishing and maintaining adequate academic standards, and others, Teferra says. And it's a little bit troubling that African efforts to increase the number of college graduates have often led to extremely high graduate unemployment rates. Still, Africa is a developing continent with much unrealized potential. The idea of the entire continent using graduate training to open the doors to development is some of the most hopeful news I've heard in a long time.

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