Graduate School reaps fruits of its labour 19 PhD graduates from across the African continent

Nineteen PhD graduates who registered in 2010 and 2011 for doctoral studies via the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, a HOPE Project initiative in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), have been awarded doctoral degrees in the 2012 academic year. Of the 19, four graduates completed their degrees over a period of two years and have returned to SU in 2013 to focus on converting their research into journal articles for publication.

While two doctoral degrees were conferred at the December 2012 graduation, 17 will be awarded at the graduation ceremony on 11 March 2013 at 16:30.

The Faculty is also celebrating another milestone: a record 56 graduates obtaining their doctoral degrees in 2012.

Over the last four years, the Graduate School has registered 88 PhD candidates from 14 African countries (Angola, Botswana, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe) and of those, a third are females. The students are enrolled across 16 of the 18 departments in the Faculty as well as the research unit, the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST).

According to Prof Johann Groenewald, Consultant: Graduate School and Flagship Project Coordinator, the Graduate School focuses on four major objectives:

  • to strengthen and advance world-class doctoral training and scholarship on the African continent by offering a partially-structured, full-time, residential doctoral scholarship programme over three years,
  • within an interactive learning environment,
  • by concentrating on multi-disciplinary research themes which address problems relevant to Africa’s development and with a specific focus on the international development goals,
  • while enhancing academic collaboration and mobility in partnership with leading African universities who are part of the Partnership for Africa’s Next Generation of Academics network (PANGeA).

“The programme is the first of its kind in Africa in the humanities, arts and social sciences,” says Groenewald. “Many other institutions have partnership agreements or focus on multidisciplinary themes, however, we have put it all together in a partially structured and integrated programme, which ensures throughput and quality and it is managed from a single office within the Faculty.”

According to Dr Cindy Steenekamp, the Manager of the Graduate School, an interactive learning environment is created by providing broad-based research and scholarship support through weekly seminars and training programmes offered by the Graduate School; encouraging participation in regular scholarly activities such as guided postgraduate, departmental or theme-orientated seminars, reading groups, conferences or specific training modules offered at SU; regular meetings between students and supervisors; as well as by the submission of regular student progress reports to the Graduate School office.

PhD candidates choose dissertation topics that fall under the eight research themes – Democratisation, poverty and conflict; Land, environment and society in Africa; Transitions and translations: Africa in local and global imaginaries; The arts as knowledge; Science, technology and society; Consolidated geographical information technology application; Language, culture and communication; and Public mental health – within the Graduate School, which are all related to the international development goals. (*Read attached document for more detailed information on some of the graduates’ dissertation topics.)

The PANGeA network was officially established in November 2010 with the signing of a multilateral memorandum of understanding between the founding universities – SU, the University of Botswana, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Malawi, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The University of Ghana joined the network at a later stage. The graduating students include scholars from Nairobi, Malawi, Dar es Salaam and Makerere universities.

“The PANGeA partnership promotes collaboration between all seven universities. Our partners therefore nominate students who are mid-level academics and whose careers they wish to fast track to complete their PhDs through the Graduate School. It’s against this background of scarcity of PhDs on the continent and in our own country that the Graduate School functions,” adds Prof Hennie Kotzé, Advisor: Graduate School and PANGeA.

The Graduate School allocates scholarships to the value of R400 000 over three years per student in addition to offering research and mobility support. Seed funding for the establishment of the initiative came from the HOPE Project, however, over the years additional financing for scholarships and the day-to-day operations of the Graduate School is covered by the Faculty. Donors such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York have also provided scholarships specifically for candidates from Ghana and Makerere universities while partner universities provide support for candidates taking up study opportunities.

“Through the Graduate School and the PANGeA agreement, we are establishing a competitive advantage in Africa by building a collaborative academic and professional network on the continent through the students who are now returning to their countries as alumni of Stellenbosch University. The programme was designed from the get-go with the purpose of encouraging students to return to their countries of origin and to increase capacity at institutions across Africa and to impact on civil society in general,” says Kotzé.

The programme is already contributing to capacity building, with three graduates from South Africa being offered positions at SU following the completion of their degrees and graduates from Angola (1), Gabon (1), Kenya (1), Malawi (1), Tanzania (1), Uganda (4) and Zimbabwe (3) returning to their home institutions to resume their academic posts there.

According to Dr James Meja Ikobwa, a graduate from Kenya who will return to the University of Nairobi to continue working as a lecturer there, he intends “to enrich and strengthen the PANGeA collaboration in his own capacity and for the mutual benefit of the institutions” involved in this network.

“South Africa has become not only a destination of choice for African students seeking quality higher education, but also a viable alternative to Europe and North America for those pursuing post-graduate studies. In this context, Stellenbosch University stands out as a leading research institution. This is the most important factor which attracted me to the University,” says Ikobwa.

“I consider the establishment of the Graduate School as an innovative way of making the process of acquiring a PhD time- and resource-efficient. In my specific case, I can point out three things that contributed greatly to making it possible to successfully complete the programme in three years. The first is the quality control mechanism put in place by the Graduate School in the form of progress reports every three months, which helps both the student and the School assess achievement of short-term objectives and subsequently stay within the time frame of reaching the ultimate goal.

“The second cornerstone of the Graduate School programme is the quality of supervision and the commitment of supervisors, who in most cases considered the success of the candidate as their own. Thirdly, the programme offers the possibility of collaboration with partner universities in Africa and elsewhere in the world in terms of joint supervision and research stays.”

Ikobwa says he benefitted greatly from the latter when he was asked to carry out research at the University of Leipzig last year.

Speaking from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Prof Peter Wasamba, the Associate Dean: Faculty of Arts at the university, said: “To have delivered the first crop of future African academics, who were sourced through the PANGeA network and have been trained in an African institution on our continent, is testimony to the fact that dreams do come true.”

* A celebratory brunch in honour of the graduates will be held on 11 March from 10:00 to 12:00 at Lanzerac Wine Estate. The media is welcome to attend the event. Please RSVP to the Graduate School office at 021 808 2079 or graduateschool@sun.ac.za to do so and indicate special dietary requirements as well. Interviews with the relevant role players can be done at this event.