Supporting doctoral education in Africa – a sketch of what’s available


The need to increase Africa’s stock of PhD-qualified staff has featured prominently in many discussions and reports in recent years – and not solely in university circles, with national dailies picking up the story in Kenya and Nigeria. It’s part of a broader concern with securing the ‘next generation’ of academics, a critical foundation for universities, and something on which their future teaching and research strength will depend. It is also something that we’re aiming to address through some of our work at the ACU.

As well as universities’ own plans to increase staff numbers with PhDs, a number of governments have announced targets and, in some cases, clear directives. Nigeria’s National University Commission insists that in institutions awarding Masters and PhDs all lecturing staff must hold a PhD themselves. Zimbabwe aims to achieve this by 2015 and Ethiopia’s ambition is for 25% of lecturers to hold a PhD and 75% a Masters by the same year. However, so huge is the gap in some places that meeting the most ambitious of these targets will be difficult, especially given it takes several years to complete a PhD - more when it's undertaken part time alongside an academic job.

More support is needed – but what already exists?

At the doctoral level, many long-standing schemes continue to try and meet this training gap, and a number of new initiatives have also emerged. But when trying to assess needs in order to design new programmes of support it’s often difficult to know what already exists.

One of the aims of the DocLinks project was to assess the level of support already available to African students, and in doing so to identify where the gaps lay. Of course the absolute level of funding is far below what’s required to meet both demand and need – demand from junior academics who want to take the next step from Masters study, the need of their universities (where many are employed as lecturers) to upgrade the qualifications of academic staff, and the need of their countries to build up their cohorts of skilled researchers. But it’s also not always a question of sheer volume of funding. Funders operate at different levels and gaps in what’s available mean that existing funding isn’t always harnessed to best effect.

An emerging picture

The results of our brief desk survey probably won't suprise anyone involved in this area, but it’s perhaps still useful to set out a few points worth making:

  • Firstly, making a meaningful assessment of what’s out there is very difficult. Unsurprisingly, it’s a complex landscape of funders and institutions. We were only able to assess the scale of support in terms of the number of schemes; calculating support at the level of awards is almost impossible.
  • Secondly, while many bilateral agencies and donors support postgraduate study, it is predominantly at Masters level. While PhDs may be supported, they are often a relatively smaller part of the scholarship portfolio. This isn’t surprising, given the relative costs and the objectives of many such schemes to produce professionals (and not necessarily academics), however, it's vital that the ‘ease’ of funding Masters doesn’t displace resources and commitment from investing properly in PhD training.
  • Thirdly, funders include both development agencies and national and international research councils. The types of funding they offer differs as a result. Development agencies tend to be more interested in the scientific needs of the home country and in research which addresses development questions, and typically provide funding specifically for developing country students. On the other hand, national research agencies tend to emphasise research excellence and are concerned with strategic advantage to the host or funding country.
  • Fourthly, many schemes make partial awards to cover elements of PhD study – time to complete a thesis or support to undertake a period of research abroad, for example. While the total number of awards available does indicate the numbers of students receiving support, it doesn’t equate to the number who are fully-funded. Unable to study full time, many doctoral researchers are likely to take longer to complete their studies as a result.
  • Finally, not all doctoral initiatives represent a source of funding accessible to students themselves. Some may be wrapped into a wider research capacity initiative, or particular research projects, and thus are restricted to staff or students within a particular institution or network. The apparent scale of activity thus isn’t necessarily an indication of the levels of funding available.

Studying within Africa, and outside of Africa

There are relatively few funding schemes which support African students to undertake doctoral study within Africa, and those that do exist offer relatively few awards each year. Within Africa, we were able to identify eleven active schemes supporting PhD study tenable at African institutions. Actual numbers of awards are hard to calculate, with many offering awards in the single digits.

Outside of Africa, eleven European countries emerged as offering awards to African students for study in the respective country (as part of wider developing country schemes), while African students are also eligible under European Commission schemes. Given that in many of these schemes there are no quotas for African awards, numbers are again hard to find. In the UK, for instance, the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission offers around 50 African PhD awards each year. While there are some significant contributions, seen from an African continental level, European funding is still relatively modest.

Of course many scholarships are offered by individual universities – often with the backing of an external funder. We didn’t track all of these, and they tend to be just a few offered at a time in each case. Nonetheless, it's likely to add up to a reasonable level of support (the UK alone had 4,130 research students from Africa in 2011/12 - 2,950 of whom are from south of the Sahara). Many donor-funded PhD grants are also made within larger funding schemes and thus are, to some extent, invisible.


Although advertised as doctoral fellowships, many PhD awards in fact offer part-funding, typically to enable a period of fieldwork or time out to complete a thesis, and reflect the fact that many PhD candidates combine study with a lecturing job. Part-funding to cover specific needs can be particularly valuable, buying time to focus on research or enabling field work which wouldn’t otherwise be possible, but it also means that doctoral candidates must have other means of support, or risk not being able to fully focus on their research. 

Collaborative approaches

With limited supervisors, insufficient resources, or a lack of good research methods expertise, many universities struggle to mount strong doctoral programmes. A popular approach is to build capacity at a regional level as a result – bringing several universities together, via individual departments, and mounting joint programmes. The AERC’s collaborative PhD in economics is one example, as is the newer programme in public health run by the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa, the collaborative PhD programmes supported by DAAD, or PhD training via the RISE networks. Newer still are the emerging nodes of the Pan African University and proposals for regional centres of excellence in East Africa.

Building links

Aside from funding to cover the basic costs of a PhD, the ability to attend conferences or summer schools, and present papers is an important part of academic development. Such grants are few and far between and were hard to find when conducting this review. If they aren’t part of the wider scholarship package, or provided by individual institutions, they’re likely to be very hard to secure. This is a critical gap, and is likely to place African researchers at a significant disadvantage compared to their academic peers in other regions.

So what does this suggest?

The report is by no means exhaustive (we'd welcome details of any schemes or initiatives that we may have overlooked), and confirms much that we already knew – that there’s a range of activity, and the need for support still outstrips what's available. More usefully perhaps, it illustrates how difficult it is for prospective African students to identify and access funding. Doctoral education is still heavily dependent on external assistance.

While it emphasises that more full-funding is needed – particularly to ensure PhDs can be completed in three or four years rather than six, seven or eight – it also suggests that the growth of network, collaborative and regional approaches is important. These can offer a vital scaffold through shared methods courses or joint supervision which might enable African universities, at the level of individual departments, to realise their own doctoral ambitions.

It’s clear that with both the scale of the need outlined and the importance of strengthening national research foundations, the solution must lie in African universities themselves. Donor funding makes essential contributions, but there’s clearly scope to put more of this funding into universities themselves, either directly or through collaborative models. Of course this still poses real challenges in the short to medium term – doctoral programmes need to be built up, and there needs to be sufficient numbers of supervisors, with the right expertise, and time and inclination to do it well.

Download the full 'Doctoral Education in Africa' report

Last modified on 20/05/2019
Tags: Africa, research, funding, PhD, support