By Prof Maurice Amutabi*
* Maurice Amutabi, the author of this piece extracted from the Pan-Africanist Pambazuka Online, (20/10/2017) is a Professor of History, Fulbright Scholar and Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, Kenya. He touches on academia’s raw nerve across the world – Intervention
Ngugi wa Thiong’o holds two teaching positions at the University of California, Irvine, as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature and Distinguished Professor of English. He does not have an earned masters or PhD degree, only a bachelor’s degree. And he is not the only one.
From 2018, the Commission for University Education (CUE) in Kenya has made it clear that only PhD holders will be employed as lecturers at universities. It has been stated that all those without PhDs will enter as tutorial fellows, and not assistant lecturers. All tutorial fellows must be registered for a PhD or else must be removed from teaching roles. The position of assistant lecturer has been scrapped. This has raised anxiety among the 8,000 university lecturers in Kenya without PhDs, many of whom have been working as assistant lecturers.
I know many people teaching in universities today who have been lecturers for over 20 years without PhDs and who fear being demoted to positions of tutorial fellow come 2018 for reasons not of their making, but pure victims of circumstances. Some of them were my classmates and did not have the chance to get a Fulbright Fellowship, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship the way I did to pursue my PhD studies in the United States of America. There are some who registered for a PhD and gave up after over ten years of struggle.
I would like to confess that if I did not get a chance to pursue my PhD in the US, I would perhaps still be an effective lecturer at Moi University. Many of these lecturers just lack the opportunities. I had registered for a PhD in a Kenyan university in 1994 and the dances and games one is taken through would have made me receive my PhD today, grey and balding, leave alone being professor for that would take another ten years after PhD.
Kenya has 400 full professors, 600 associate professors and less than 7,000 PhD holders. The country needs to produce 25,000 PhD holders to meet the current deficit in 73 universities and 300,000 students in universities in the country. The country needs to produce 2,500 PhDs annually to narrow the gap for the next ten years and yet it is producing slightly below 200 PhDs per year, many of them about to reach retirement age because they spend 10 years doing a PhD when it should take three years. One of the 2016 PhD graduates from the University of Nairobi, Senator G. G. Kariuki passed away recently at the age of 79.
I am writing this because there has been some misinformation making rounds that one will be required to have a PhD to teach at University in 2018. This is not true, as the true position is that tutorial fellow will be the entry level for teaching staff with a masters degree and not assistant lecturer or lecturer as has been the case. The argument being that there are people who have served as assistant lecturers for over ten years without seeking to advance to PhD because they are permanent and pensionable and not worried about job tenure. The belief is that if they are hired on contract renewable on positive progress reports on PhD, they will work harder to earn the PhD and improve quality of teaching at our universities.
We may be wrongly clamouring for PhD as if it is a panacea, some silver bullet for issues that bedevil higher education in Kenya. The focus on PhD rather than the quality of teaching by master’s degree holders is the one that is causing anxiety among stakeholders in Kenya today. Of Kenya’s 73 universities, about 50% do not offer graduate training, meaning that masters degree holders can effectively teach in many of them, with proper supervision and guidance by senior staff.
Prof. Basil Davidson is perhaps one of the most widely quoted scholars on African history. His research work in Africa is immense and his name has appeared in almost every PhD dissertation on African history for the past fifty years. Many people do not know that Prof. Basil Davidson did not attend any university. He did not have any degree. Yet he was one of the most accomplished historians that I have ever read and listened to. I have used his historical documentaries in my lectures.
Prof. Davidson left his formal schooling at high school and rose from a field reporter for various media houses to university professor and has written some of the best books of history. He became Honorary Fellow of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to allow him teach at university. He wrote many influential books which include Africa: History of a Continent (1966), Africa in History (1968), A History of West Africa 1000-1800 (1977) and African Civilization Revisited: from Antiquity to Modern Times (1995). These are books we have used as undergraduate and graduate students.
If someone had insisted on a PhD requirement in working at university, the world would never have seen Prof. Basil Davidson. His name is mentioned alongside great historians on African history such as B. A. Ogot, E. A. Ayandele, J. F Ade Ajayi, A. B. Itandala, I. N Kimambo, A. J Temu, Roland Oliver, J. D. Fage, Terence Ranger; Philip Curtin, Ronald Robinson, Adu Boehen, Walter Rodney, Jack Gallagher, William Robert Ochieng’, Robert Maxon, John Iliffe, among others.
In Kenya, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is perhaps the most famous professor. He does not have an earned masters or PhD degree, only his good bachelor’s degree and is one of Kenya’s best known authors. He is one of the mega-professors that Kenya has produced besides Ali A. Mazrui. We would not have Professor Ngugi if we had insisted on a PhD to teach at the university.
As a matter of fact, some of the greatest professors that the African continent has produced such as Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka have never had PhDs but their works are the most cited in the academic world. Readers may want to know that besides not having a , Wole Soyinka has served as Professor in Ivy League universities such as Harvard (currently number one university in the world), Yale, Cornell and prominent universities such as Emory, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria.
Prof. Francis Fredrick Ojany, distinguished Geography Professor of the University of Nairobi, does not have a PhD but rose to become full professor before retiring after 46 years. My colleagues always praised him for effective teaching when we were undergraduates at the University of Nairobi in the 1980s. Prof. Francis Fredrick Ojany’s CV is full of distinctions right from his days at Alliance High School, Makerere University to his master’s degree at the University of Birmingham, UK. The lack of PhD did not bar him from becoming a full professor of the university.
Prof. George M. O Magoha is a full professor of surgery and a distinguished urologist of the University of Nairobi, of no mean standing and rose to become the Vice Chancellor of the university. Prof. Magoha does not have a PhD but is one the most visible and accomplished university administrators that Kenya has produced. Looking at his CV, one sees a great mind from his days at Starehe Boys Centre, Strathmore and Lagos University. Why would one put a PhD as an obstacle to such talent? There is a need to cultivate an understanding that a PhD is not a sine qua non to success in university teaching and research.
The University of Nairobi was made famous by scholars such as Okot P’Bitek, Taban Liyong, Peter Anyumba, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, among others and whose common denominator was that they did not have PhDs, just a good masters degree. They were popular with students and some of their products such as Prof. Chris Wanjala, Prof. Ralenga Mtaali Osotsi, Prof. Tabitha Kanogo, Prof. Henry Mutoro, Prof. Peter Amuka and Prof. Henry Indangasi are some of the finest in the world today. The lack of a PhD did not deter them from teaching effectively at the university. They were lecturers and not tutorial fellows.
Many universities in developed countries still employ lecturers without PhDs. The entry point remains a master’s degree and many are ranked very highly in terms of quality teaching, research and service to the community. You only need to look at websites of leading universities in the world and look at the academic qualifications and you would be surprised that a PhD is not one of the common denominators of many of them. You would find out that Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o holds two teaching positions at the University of California, Irvine, as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature and Distinguished Professor of English at the School of Humanities. By the time you are done with top 100 universities in the world, where few African universities feature, you would discover that over 30 percent of their teaching staff members do not hold PhDs and they are more endowed and richer than our Kenyan economy.
I would like to declare that some of my best lecturers at the University of Nairobi did not have a PhD. When Prof. Peter Wanyande taught me Political Science, he was one of the best tutors and did not have a PhD at the time. There were many young scholars who were our tutors in African History working under Prof. Atieno Odhiambo and were quite effective and popular and did not have PhDs. There is evidence to suggest that some master’s degree holders are excellent at content delivery than PhD holders. I would not like to open a debate on this issue because I know that PhD expanded my horizons and should be encouraged for all teaching staff at university.
Do not get me wrong, because I know how unrefined and uninformed I was before pursuing a PhD with coursework and research. The PhD journey was a tour d’horizon for me. It opened my academic eyes and ears. It added value and I would not have written 20 books which are better and more sophisticated.
I can never enumerate the benefits of having a PhD to a scholar, especially one who has done coursework, because they are so many, including my being able to read over 2,000 books in different fields under coursework and literature review. I attend over 20 conferences and workshops and published 20 articles and two books by the time I was completing my PhD.
However, teaching at undergraduate does not need a PhD because the issues at that level are less complicated. I know that many universities want their first years taught by senior professors in order to promote high quality and experience, but the benefits of the alternative can still be debated, especially of professors with responsibilities.
After my PhD and since becoming a full professor, I taught one of my former students at PhD level and he told me that I had toned down my enthusiasm and become slightly complicated, a polite way of telling me that I was somewhat uninteresting compared to the days when I had no PhD and walked in front of class quoting Walter Rodney like the Bible. Many students have told me about their lecturers and professors before and after they received the PhD and the consensus seems to be that master’s degree holders teach better at undergraduate level.
When I was appointed lecturer at Moi University in the early 1990s, the School of Human Resource Development had 36 staff members holding masters and only two had PhDs: the Dean of the School, Prof. George Godia, and the Head of Communication Department Prof. Mary Lutta-Mukhebi. The rest were either Mr (miserable roosters) or Miss (miserable, interested still searching) people. They were appointed lecturers and allowed to grow and get their PhDs and today from that miserable lot came Prof. Joshua Kwonyike, Prof. Peter Omboto, Prof. Obi Okumu Bigambo, Prof. Juliet Macharia, Prof. Richard Musebe, Prof. Maurice Amutabi, Prof. Leonard Mulongo, Prof. Joseph Kibet Rotich, among others.
After PhD, the tendency for most lecturers is to take few minutes off teaching time to talk about the days they were at Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford, Illinois, Berkeley, Chicago, London, Melbourne, Cape Town, Nairobi, etc doing their PhD and how they were bright and extraordinary. They will not say that their thesis topics were rejected over a dozen times, and failed proposal defence at least once. Of course they don’t know that nobody gives a damn if you went to Lukenya or Harvard, but the fact that you are delivering good content.
There is current thinking out there in which knowledgeable “experts” who have no university degrees are incorporated as instructors in universities. They are graduates of the University of Life and have immense knowledge on various issues such as indigenous medicine and surgery, ethno weather and food security, astrology and mining. In the US many Native American experts are often given Chairs at Universities for their knowledge in indigenous issues. Take the case of Kisambira in Busoga who was given a chair in a university because of his knowledge of Busoga culture.
There is the case of Oliver Mutukuzi of Zimbabwe who was given a role at a university due to his knowledge of indigenous music. Kenyatta University took Daudi Kabaka on board in its arts centre. We have many cases that merit sharing of knowledge in universities such as the case of Isangomas in South Africa who have been recognised as important agents in alternative medicine. Why are we not recognising the Marakwet indigeous surgeons who open up skulls to heal people?
But as we clamour for PhD holders to teach at universities we must also support the processes in our universities to graduate PhDs on time. I have recently been short listing and interviewing PhD students from local universities for tutorial fellow positions at our university and have been shocked to find that some have been registered for PhD before 2007, meaning that they have taken over ten years. How can someone spend over ten years doing PhD? There must be something wrong with our Kenyan universities, scholars and students to keep a student in a PhD program for ten years when it takes 3 years elsewhere.