The average age of PhD graduates in Kenyan universities is worrying

Many Kenyans who witnessed recent Kenyan graduations ceremonies must have been surprised by the average age of PhD graduates, because it was evident that many of them have been around for a little longer. The ceremonies were colourful and there is no doubt that the recipients of the permanent head damage (PhD) deserved their degrees, but what was evident was their advanced age, with receding hairlines and colours of grey. Honestly, the age of students graduating with PhDs in Kenyan universities is worrying, because many of them are in their 50s and 60s and something needs to be done about it. This leaves them to work for about 20 years and they reach emeritus status compared to the west where the age of PhD graduates is about 28 and they expect about 50 years service from their PhD holders, and which gives them tremendous amount of advantages.

The past graduation season showed some students using walking sticks to receive their PhDs and some could not kneel at the dais. This got me thinking, and asking myself why our PhD graduates are too old, graduating in their 50s and 60s. One of the reasons is that most of people think about PhDs when they are about to retire and want to increase their working days by seeking to get PhDs, while others started their PhDs many years ago but have been walking the “corridors of recasting” and “corridors of frustration” for a long time that they end up taking over 10 years doing their PhDs. I realised some are victims of a system that does not promote staff development and have worked as lecturers or tutorial fellows for over 20 years since they received their masters and cannot afford high fees charged in PhD programmes. There are those who completed coursework and cannot continue because they cannot afford costs of field research.

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I was bothered by the problem of graduating pre-Octogenarians in many Kenyan universities because I also received my PhD late, in my late 30s and was the oldest student in all my PhD courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA where majority of my classmates were in their 20s. Many of my professors were in their 30s and 40s and some were much younger than me. The age of Kenyan PhD graduates got me wondering whether late blooming is a Kenyan problem. I applied to begin my PhD in my 20s in 1991 in Kenya and was dismissed as being too young and “in a hurry” which really discouraged me. There were also many obstacles to getting PhD scholarships because the opportunities were given to those who were “known” by the big people on campus and the Ministry of Education at the time. I remember I applied for Commonwealth scholarship to UK and Canada but was always given India, which I was not comfortable with, until the USA government granted me a Fulbright Scholarship to study PhD after waiting for ten years.

Gerontocracy (study of aging) experts will tell you that scholars are most productive between the ages of 30 and 50, and afterwards they begin to decline and move towards their sunset years and start to write memoirs and reflections of their great past. The other issue is that after 50 the human mind begins to slow down and reflex actions begin to experience delays. The mind begins to forget, the body gets frail and easily tired and eyes begin to fail. Unfortunately, many Kenyan professors are above 50 years as well as many PhD holders which cause paralysis in the higher education sector. Students cannot get useful feedback and when they do it is often late. The other problem is that the few professors available end up in administration as directors, deans, deputy vice chancellors and vice chancellors at a relatively young age because salaries for classroom or research professors are depressingly low.

There are also age tensions, between younger and older scholars which affect graduate students.  If you are below 40 and you are a doctor, you realise that in order to survive you have to be seen and not be heard otherwise you will never move beyond lecturer to senior lecturer. Scholars are therefore scared for the dictatorship of age rules. In many university senates, incoherent octogenarians dominate and reminiscence about the past a lot, about their days at Alliance and Maseno under Carey Francis, their days at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University “when they were still universities” and ask tough questions during PhD defences which are meant to scare students away, arguing that PhD is for the tough and not for the faint hearted, and it is not for everybody.

Students who have the courage to remain and complete their PhDs are slowed down by problems of supervision with professors and doctors giving comments at their own discretion. If a student questions the speed of receiving feedback, he is labelled ‘trouble maker’ and may never graduate because the professors have formed cartels where they agree on who to graduate and whom to fail. The PhD students are therefore a scared lot and move around with a lot of fear. Some of the professors delay students because of their own differences. They intentionally fail students of their rivals. When they supervise the same student, they cannot agree on many issues, thereby impeded progress of their students. Some male professors make sexual demands on their female PhD students and those who do not cooperate are denounced as ‘weak’ and ‘uncooperative’ and not good team players.

I yearn for a time when Kenyan universities will produce majority of their PhD graduates in their 20s and 30s. It is happening in the West where students who receive first class and upper second are groomed into future professors by being recruited as teaching or graduate assistants with good salaries and given tuition waiver into masters degrees and after two years of masters, they move to PhD degrees and after three years, they can graduate as Doctors. Kenyan professors need to stop looking at the amount of grey hair on the student’s head before granting PhDs. They should promote PhD holders to professorial positions, based on teaching experience, research, supervision of graduate students and publications as yard sticks to advancement, not age, ethnic, gender and other factors.

Professor Amutabi is the Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, Kenya and Professor of History. He  President of African Interdisciplinary Studies Association (AISA), a pioneer professional associaiton bringing together members from all disciplines in Africa and abroad. He is a former Fulbright Scholar who previously worked as Deputy Vice Chancellor at Kisii University and also Director of Research and Professor in Peace and Strategic Studies at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), 2010-2013.