Only PhD holders should lecture at university – Prof Kangira

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By Professor Jairos Kangira

When I completed my Master of Philosophy in Linguistics degree, I was a teaching assistant at the University of Zimbabwe. My two colleagues and I started celebrating because we had spent four hard years researching and writing our theses since we were working as teaching assistants.

The university regulations doubled the period of study for students who were working, including us.

The celebrations of completing an MPhil to us were justified until my supervisor, an American distinguished professor of linguistics, approached us in our office
(the three of us shared a spacious office as teaching assistants), and poured cold water on our excitement about completing the master’s degrees. She condescendingly told us that in the part of America where she came from, a master’s degree was like a certificate of
attendance. She left us in great shock, but we recovered a few days later, and applied for our PhD studies with different universities. The rest is history now, thanks to the distinguished professor who spoiled our enthusiasm and excitement over attaining our master’s degrees, and thinking that we had arrived.

Why do I start with this anecdote? The story serves to show that the professor’s seemingly negative attitude towards us had galvanised us into action, and prompted us to register for our PhDs.

Even later when the university insisted that only academics with PhDs were allowed to teach at the institution, we were sorted – we were found on the right footing. The university was considerate enough to give master’s holders a grace period of four years to either acquire doctoral degrees, or quit academic life. Universities from time to time review the qualifications of their academics, and there is nothing abnormal about it.

Such measures are often received with mixed feelings by the concerned academic staff, and sometimes lead to conflicts between the staff and management.

As I write this article, demanding that master’s holders must acquire PhDs has opened a pandora’s box at Makerere University, Uganda, the erstwhile ‘University of London’ of Africa in its heydays.

According to a recent publication, parts of the letter that has incensed some academics and their association at Makerere University reads: “The appointments’ board at its 698th meeting … noted that there were many assistant lecturers employed on permanent terms who had not attained their PhD qualification.

The board agreed that all assistant lecturers on permanent terms who had not yet embarked on their studies should do so immediately, and must be given four years (up to 31 January 2027) to complete their studies.”

Citing issues regarding the astronomical costs associated with obtaining a PhD and the fact that many who have completed their PhDs have not been promoted, some academics at Makerere University are calling for the university to rescind this policy that has caused a stir in the academic community of the university.

Whether these observations are right or wrong, the question of the PhD qualification has raised many controversies in universities.

University staff associations and unions have been fighting universities to stop this policy, with little or no success, as we have witnessed universities sticking to their guns.

The major argument that I have found credible is that universities are mainly concerned about scholarship in the higher education business. In her study titled ‘Becoming a University Teacher: The Role of the PhD’, Belinda Robert (2014) found out that “The PhD, with its requirement to produce ‘significant and original research outcomes’, has become the defining qualification for Australian academics, with all universities working to maximise the proportion of academics with a doctorate.”  Similarly, in his research paper titled ‘PhD to be the Compulsory Qualification for Lecturers”, Gibert Nganga(2014) revealed that “Kenya has set a higher qualification threshold for appointments of university lecturers. In a directive to be implemented in the next five years, the Commission for Higher Education said only PhD holders would be allowed to teach at universities as lecturers.”

The two examples given above are a clear testimony that the days of master’s degree holders are numbered in universities across the world.

Universities have transformed, and there is more emphasis on increasing the research capacities and output of their academics in a highly competitive sector of education. The policy requiring all appoints to have a doctorate seems to have carried the day, with many universities steadily moving towards its adoption and strict enforcement. The commendable practice is that master’s degree holders are given a grace period to upgrade their qualifications to a PhD.

Those who support this move have described it as noble and considerate since no one is dismissed, but they are given a chance to improve their qualifications.

However, opponents of this PhD policy argue that junior lecturers or assistant lectures feel pressurised to study since this does not come because of their own volition, but as a sanction for their survival in academia.

My advice to those academics who find themselves affected by the PhD policy is to embrace it and take it positively as there are more rewards in doing so than jumping into the bandwagon of opposing this noble initiative that universities are adopting.

It is, therefore, advisable for master’s degree holders who are teaching in universities to make hay while the sun shines.  Without sounding offensive and patronising, I strongly urge local universities to adopt the PhD policy now, that is if they have not done so, in order to be abreast with time and the rest of the world in higher education.

*Professor Jairos Kangira is a professor of English at the University of Namibia.