Alleged corruption in academic appointments highlights Cameroon’s PhD glut

Doctoral graduates’ occupation of Higher Education Ministry will do little by itself to solve a structural problem, says?Kenneth Nsah

June 22, 2020
lot of graduates crowd together
Source: iStock

Last December’s hiring of 1,200 university lecturers in Cameroon should have been a joyous occasion, marking the entry of a new generation of young, talented scholars into the country’s academy.

Instead, it sparked recrimination, angry protests and allegations of political corruption after it emerged that many of the recruits were civil servants or had only master’s degrees. Some of the overlooked PhD graduates held a sit-down protest in the Higher Education Ministry lasting several weeks, during which two of them even attempted suicide.

The protest finally came to an end on 9?January, when officials agreed to bring forward a second round of hiring originally scheduled for later in 2020, giving hope to some of the more deserving PhD graduates who had been ignored in the first round.

The episode divided public opinion. Some mocked the disgruntled PhDs’ desire for well-paid jobs in state universities, but others sympathised with their struggle against injustice and many saw the incident as illustrative of a bigger problem: the oversupply of doctoral graduates for a limited number of university jobs.

Of course, this situation is not unique to Cameroon. Questions have also been raised about whether Australia, for instance, needs 10,000 new PhD graduates a year, or whether the surfeit of PhDs in the US has created a “post-postdoc culture”, in which adjunct staff hop from one temporary post to another with little hope of securing a permanent position.

But the situation in Cameroon is particularly acute. The country produces far more PhDs than can ever be absorbed – not only by academia but also by the civil service and even the private sector. To avoid more unrest, radical reforms are needed, starting with a limit on how many people can begin PhD training. But the cap should not be arbitrary: it should be used to promote impactful research linked to local problems and to weed out weak candidates and those pushed reluctantly into study by supervisors for their own selfish reasons. This might mean requiring candidates to publish at least one peer-reviewed publication before admission or making the files they submit for their projects publicly available, rather than allowing their supervisors to keep them locked away.

Introducing industry-funded PhD schemes would also help to raise standards. National institutions, museums and banks have many problems that could be tackled by brilliant PhD candidates – who, in return, would be part-funded by these organisations. Such work could also help to steer graduates into alternatives careers if academic positions are not available.

Doctoral candidates also must remain engaged with their subject throughout their studies. I?began presenting papers at academic conferences just after gaining my bachelor’s degree, but, regrettably, some PhD students in Cameroon will never even attend a research seminar or conference. The country’s universities could also emulate Norway and Denmark, where doctoral candidates must face trial defences of their research midway through their studies. Some institutions even hire scholars from abroad to serve as examiners.

Moreover, whatever the admissions criteria regarding publication, candidates should certainly be required to publish at least one article in a respected journal – not a low-quality student outlet or, worse, a predatory journal – before they defend their dissertation. That rule was introduced by the University of Yaoundé II in 2018, and it will pay dividends.

Doctoral graduates must also be encouraged to better market themselves. They possess the skills to analyse problems; to manage time, projects and people; and to write, synthesise and edit or proofread reports. Yet few unemployed PhDs seem to advertise these competences.

That is equally true of those involved in the protests. Many have taught part-time in state universities for many years, yet I?could find no trace of them on the main professional social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, and

Protests alone will not magic up large numbers of academic jobs in Cameroon. But if a slimmed-down, more robustly selected cohort of PhDs became more responsible for their marketability, everyone would be better served.

Kenneth Nsah is an author and PhD student in comparative literature at Aarhus University. He runs a Facebook page, After Higher School/Après le lycée, where he shares scholarships and educational opportunities for Africans.


Print headline: More PhDs, more problems?

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