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Opinions of Friday, 5 April 2019

Columnist: Prosper Kofi Senyo

Why the arguments on PhD requirement in our universities are misplaced

Recently when the minister of education hinted that PhD shall become a mandatory qualification for lecturers in our universities, there was a public uproar. But what are the underlying assumptions beneath such a reaction? Perhaps given what it takes to earn a PhD, and given our economic status, it may be impractical to get all our lecturers having a PhD.

But ideally, is the PhD qualification really relevant for positioning our universities as agents of national development? And is higher education really exaggerated in the scheme of national development? These are the questions which this essay addresses.

A belief among many Ghanaians is that, higher education, is exaggerated. It has little role, either in ensuring individual success or in fostering national development. Why should people spend time and resources chasinga master’s degree or even a PhD? After all, Bill Gates, Michael Zuckerberg etc. did not even get a university degree. This view seems to dismiss the value of higher learning and critical intellect in entrepreneurship. A huge mistake!

Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s earliest entrepreneurs and richest of all time wrote his own epitaph thus: “Here lies a man who was able to surround himself with men far cleverer than himself.” This statement underscores his belief that his great success lies not in his own ingenuity, but rather in his ability to appoint people with the right intellect to work for him. Indeed, Carnegie is one of the first industrialists to hire scientists for research. The success of entrepreneurs like Carnegie is thus founded on their ability to assembly a team of varied talents and education to achieve their dreams.

The problem here is that, many people take business enterprises as very simple entities, managed by one superhuman entrepreneur who possesses the elixir of success. Such people do not see the bigger picture, of the assemblage of highly skilled and qualified professionals that man the business empires of such business behemoths like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Ma; neither do such people appreciate the contribution of quality education to the development of those moguls, many of whom came from the best homes and had the finest education available.

In a world where fierce competition is driving industry to the edge, cutting edge research is what is defining business. Some Ghanaians it seems, do not understand the nature of research and intellectual input that underpin such business decisions as Nissan locating a plant in Ghana, or Toyota designing a particular car model for a specific region of the world. Such people are blinded by the mediocre successes of 14th century business modules here, unaware of the nature of global competition that our local businesses must face, if we’re to truly stake a claim to global commerce.

How competitive are our local businesses in the global market? For instance, what kind of research and intellectual analysis went behind the production of the Kantanka cars? Are they being manufactured according to the market demands of Ghana or Africa? These are questions that cutting-edge research and higher intellectual analysis could answer. How logical is it then, to dismiss the role of higher education in industry?

Another reason offered for the dismissal of the role of higher education is that, industry experience is more valuable than higher education. There is a gap between industry and academia, and that lecturers of higher learning but little industry experience, have little to offer students. This is an ageless argument that has merits. Granted, a person with vivid experiences of concepts learnt, may be better placed to understand and explain such concepts.

Yet the argument has been overstretched here. There is no barricade between a higher learning and industry experience. Nor is there a guarantee that lecturers with industry experience necessarily have the capacity to breathe those experiences into the living reality of their students. And the infrastructural deficiencies that hamper practical teaching in our universities would not be solved by the industry experience of lecturers.

But the greatest tragedy of this argument lies in our faulty conception of the essence of university education. University education is not about imparting and then closing the minds of students on a knowledge packaged, either in the closed experiences of lecturers, or closed books of theories. Rather, university education is supposed to liberate the minds of people to be able to search and discover knowledge on their own.

The world is rapidly evolving, and the knowledge of yesterday may be dead knowledge. A book once published may be considered dead in the face of new evidence that the world continues to churn out. Same way, the practical experiences of yesterday could be irrelevant today.

Take the practice of journalism for instance, and you’ll see that the skills and mindset needed for the profession are rapidly evolving with new technologies and political systems. The success of the modern journalist, may lie, neither in closed books published in the eighties nor experiences gleaned in the 90s. Whether in journalism, marketing, public relations, finance and banking or any other profession, what industry needs in this modern age, is the kind of innovative capacity that produces new knowledge to meet new challenges.

Granted, there are different roles in industry, and not everyone is responsible for strategic decision making. There are of course low-level workers who merely implement the ideas of others, and who may merely employ some repetitive skills. But how many of us would dream to be forever restricted to this role and not rise in the corporate ladder?

Yet to rise to managerial levels, where a company or industry may survive on your ideas, you surely need the capacity to produce new knowledge to respond to the increasing challenges of the modern age. And that is what higher education must equip students to be able to do. The emphasis here is research.

And when companies demand higher degrees from those aspiring to managerial positions, this is the logic behind it and it is wholly rational. Thus, while industry experience is an additional asset, it should not replace higher education as the qualification for teaching in our universities. At best industry education should complement higher education.

Indeed, another argument often made is that, higher education here, is merely a craze for paper certificates without substance. This argument while partly true, actually boils down to the quality of tuition and leadership in our universities. In a society where some lecturers offer grades for sex, and where people easily buy their dissertations (there are even open advertisement for dissertations), this is what we should expect.

And the effects reach deep into industry. There are people in top positions in industry with certificates that speak little about their actual abilities, hence decision makers with little knack of research, blindly leading our local industries.

To solve this problem then, we must return to the source of the problem: our universities. There is the need to raise the profile of our universities through the quality of the tuition and leadership in those universities. Demanding a PhD as a qualification for teaching in a university is a step in that direction.

Top universities all over the world pride themselves in their ability to produce new knowledge to solve new problems; and the capacity to raise students that impact society.This explains why such universities are continuously investing resources in recruiting the best brains all over the world for research. And one of the biggest strengths of the United States, is the capacity of its universities to continuously produce leading knowledge in the fields of commerce and industry.

The professors behind such achievements, may not themselves be the richest of people. Yet it is their innovative ideas that have defined the world. Their duty is not to infuse students with ready-made solutions to every problem, but rather to liberate the minds of students to seek their own solutions. And many students from such universities have indeed gone on to become leading innovators.

Our universities are probably not doing this well. How many students have not faced challenges of poor supervision while writing their dissertations? But this problem would not be solved by industry experience. The problem would be solved by raising the research profile of our universities to be able to produce the right caliber of leaders for our industries.

Thus, the brouhaha that greeted the idea of the introduction of a PhD as a criterion for teaching in our universities, is a wholly misguided one. No one is better placed to superintend over knowledge production than a person wholly trained and dedicated to doing so.

Not many of us may have the capacity to ascend to such academic heights. But let us appreciate the value of higher education in the interest of national development. And let us embrace efforts to raise the quality of higher education that can make our local industries competitive globally.