Why China is becoming a top choice for Ghanaian PhD students

In 2018 alone 800 Ghanaians were studying for PhDs in China – up from 200 in 2017.
In 2018 alone 800 Ghanaians were studying for PhDs in China – up from 200 in 2017.
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“China wasn’t my first option for a PhD. Honestly, in Ghana the perception about China or the Chinese system, Chinese products, Chinese whatever, it is not very positive.”

Dr. Courage Simon Kofi Dogbe is one of the thousands of Ghanaians who recently got their PhDs from universities in China. In 2018 alone 800 Ghanaians were studying for PhDs in China – up from 200 in 2017. This is compared to 2,200 Ghanaians registered for a PhD in Ghana in that year.

The wide availability of Chinese government scholarships has fueled this trend, as has the relatively straightforward university application process. This is especially when contrasted to the high costs of applying to universities in the US and Europe, frequent rejections, and less generous offers, for those who want to study abroad.

As the largest single provider of university scholarships to students from sub-Saharan Africa, China accounts for 40% of all scholarships that are given to students from the region. Beyond the sheer numbers, the experiences of African researchers who get their PhDs in China may herald a profound culture change for universities on the continent.

China is influencing academia in Africa through those who return

China is shaping Ghana’s higher education sector in an interesting way. Steeped in academic tradition, the oldest Ghanaian universities have a reputation for bureaucratic examination procedures and minimal supervisory support. PhD candidates have to juggle their teaching and research, at times taking the best part of a decade to complete their PhDs.

There is also a constant concern about Ghanaian academics publishing in hard-to-find and uncited academic journals. This impacts Ghana’s global university rankings, and also prevents Ghanaian academics from contributing to a global science system through knowledge production, knowledge dissemination, and collegial collaborations.

In contrast, China has turbocharged its research output, overtaking the US in 2018 to become the world’s largest producer of scientific research articles. Recent African PhD graduates from China describe being trained in demanding but dynamic research environments, with a razor sharp focus on publishing in ‘top’ international journals.

The experiences of these students—many of whom are on research leave from their posts in Ghanaian universities—bring their experiences back. In doing so, they are changing the face of Ghanaian universities and how research is conducted, as they implement what they learned from their PhD training in China.

Not the first choice, but in retrospect, was the best

Dr. Dogbe’s experience is not a unique one. This is a common response in interviews with Chinese-educated African academics. For many, the decision to study in China is part serendipity and part last resort. In Dr. Dogbe’s case it was only after several failed applications to UK and other European universities, and a chance encounter with a friend who shared scholarship opportunities, that he even considered China.

“Basically, the motivation for going to China was the scholarship package.”

His colleague, Dr Claudia Nyarko Mensah, shares an almost similar story. “Initially I really did not want to go far from home. I wanted to do my PhD in South Africa but looking at the tuition fees, they were quite high.”

She had been lecturing in a Ghanaian  private university, where salaries often went unpaid, and needed a way out. A family friend preparing his Chinese university application mentioned the possibility of a PhD in China and when Claudia’s own offer letter came through, it was a full scholarship, including fees and accommodation.

In contrast, those wishing to apply to UK universities have to pay more than $250 just to sit an English language entrance exam.

“That is how I landed in Jiangsu University, and I credit it for my academic success,” she says.

Dr. Dogbe and Dr. Mensah represent a growing generation of young academics who graduated from Chinese universities and who have returned to academic positions in Ghana’s expanding university sector.

Shortly after graduating last year, both Dr. Dogbe and Dr. Mensah returned to Ghana and were hired as lecturers in the Department of Management Studies Education at Akenten Appiah-Menka University of Skills Training and Entrepreneurial Development (AAMUSTED), a new public university in Kumasi with another campus at Maampong-Ashanti. Within their first year, they were both appointed to the department’s research committee, and in October they submitted a 5-year strategic research plan for the department.

How completing their PhDs in China differed from the experience in Ghana

The academic training that Dr. Dogbe and Dr. Mensah received at Jiangsu University, for example, consisted of direct supervision and high expectations. Research supervisors set articles which students were expected to read and summarize. PhD students would meet weekly to present and comment on each other’s work. Jiangsu professors would organize workshops on new approaches to data modeling, how to write literature reviews, or on selecting the right journal. They expected full commitment and active participation.

“Supervisors would be asking questions and giving you assignments…Their high academic expectation was kind of crazy to us. This doesn’t happen in Ghana,” says Dr. Mensah.

The expectations around publishing were strikingly different between the two university systems. In Ghana a publication that has been accepted by a peer-reviewed academic journal is not a requirement for graduation.

“The only thing that is required is a paper submission receipt…and you and I know that they generate that email automatically, so whether or not the person submits rubbish, that person will still get that email acknowledgement and graduate,” says Dr. Dogbe.

In contrast, their Jiangsu professors expected their students to publish three articles in ‘high-impact’ journals before they graduated.

“They made it clear to us during the orientation, that one of the reasons why they gave us scholarships is to help them publish. They depend on us to publish so the university can have a better ranking,” says Dr. Dogbe.

He notes that he has friends who did  PhDs in Europe, conducted research but were not under the same pressure to publish as they were in China.

Being pushed has its benefits in a competitive academic job market where publications and citations are an all-important currency. Dr. Mensah estimates that she has published around 17-20 articles to date and had already published four in top-notch journals before graduation.

“I compare my research impact to some professors, and I rate higher.”

These publications also feed into Jiangsu University’s own ranking credentials.

What do the PhD holders bring back to Ghana?

Dr. Dogbe says that his approach to publishing has also changed as a result of his training in China. Although he had published journal articles during his master’s degree in Ghana, he had never been taught that journals were ranked according to how often their articles were cited by other scholars.

“All those things, we were not really interested in them here. Some lecturers would publish in predatory journals and it was accepted.”

From their experience in Ghana, they feel that people do not even have enough information on what high quality publications are and why they are worth the wait. This is something that they are both eager to change. Dr. Dogbe hopes that he can support his own students in the same way that he was supported by his supervisor in China—working together with them to co-publish papers and providing guidance without jeopardizing his own publication record or university promotion chances.

This focus on internationally highly cited journals may prove transformative for Ghana’s research sector that is on the periphery of the global science system, publishing less than 2% of Africa’s research.

In the research plan that both Dr. Dogbe and Dr. Mensah are proposing, they are implementing a lot of what was the norm for them in China.

They say, “We are proposing weekly seminars, research cliques, and we are encouraging collaboration – both internal and external. Publication should also be a requirement and then you – the lecturer should work with them and push them to do it…It’s the same people who travel outside to China and other places and they are doing it, so why can’t it be done in my school in Ghana?

Whether their vision for research will be shared by their peers in a young university like AAMUSTED, is yet to be seen. So far, the signs are promising.  In 2018, China pledged 50,000 university scholarships to Africa from 2019-2022 which already represents an increase of 20,000 on the number of scholarships awarded in the previous three years. The influence of academics trained in China will be even more pronounced in African universities in the years to come.

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