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Ruto’s PhD could be a blessing in disguise for higher education

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By MARK EVANS ONDARI
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It has been a while since Deputy President William Ruto was conferred a PhD degree in plant ecology from my alma mater but scholarly brawls about it continue apace online. The bone of contention is that, in the true sense of academic meritocracy, a person of Dr Ruto’s punishing political schedule could not have invested enough time to truly earn academia’s highest honour.

On the surface, however, this sounds like an argument from incredulity for, after all, the DP defended his dissertation before a panel of seasoned professors, who determined that he had met the threshold for a PhD.

And yet when you objectively contextualise this in terms of what ordinarily, but non-linearly, constitutes a PhD, the singularity of Ruto’s academic achievement sticks out like the thumb of Odysseus. This is especially so in the sciences, where collecting and analysing data, while imperative to the process, is hardly enough to make one a doctor (Latin for “teacher”) of philosophy.

Although inevitable, it’s never the end goal of a doctoral programme worth its name to arm PhD candidates with other people’s facts. Rather, it should facilitate creation of new knowledge through rigorous application of the Scientific Method — a systematic process of identifying a problem worth solving, formulating sound hypotheses around it and then deliberately subjecting these conjectures to empirical (in)validation or refinement through experimentation.

It’s the iterative nature of this latter part of the process, wherein cumulative knowledge and unbiased interpretation of data is used to continuously refine or interrogate the validity of hypotheses, that makes it intimidating and time-intensive and often distinguishes a great student from a mediocre one.

However, the PhD committee adjudicates a candidate on the total “body of work”: The depth of comprehension of both their work and the field of study, as well as material contribution to that area of research through original and independent thinking as judged by the quality of their dissertation and publications.

Consequently, most doctoral candidates in the sciences take at least five uninterrupted years to muster this requisite body of work. It is also one reason why admission to reputable science-based PhD programmes in the West comes with full scholarship and a stipend to ensure minimum distraction. I spent an average of 14 hours in school per day, six days a week for five straight years, to earn a PhD in chemistry. This schedule was very unforgiving to personal relationships, much less a second career.

With this context, it is now perhaps easier to understand why some are openly sceptical that Ruto’s ultra-intense schedule for the past seven years — comprising the 2011-2012 election campaigns; post-election violence case at the International Criminal Court; official duties as deputy president; and the monstrous 2016-2017 electioneering — would not have left any meaningful time for an equally demanding PhD. That as it may, the DP has joined the PhD club and is a “doctor’ no less.

However, it is during times like these when some start to wonder, justifiably so, if we are truly giving our local PhDs the right kind of training, tools and exposure to help them to tackle our most pressing issues. Could this, perhaps, explain why we import the most basic of things from India and China instead of manufacturing them locally?

Nonetheless, it might not be a stretch to imagine a couple of unintended consequences from Ruto’s PhD, particularly in light of Vision 2030. One, he understands first-hand the need for, and cost of, creating a highly trained talent pool that would help propel our industrialisation dream.

Two, as the country’s second in command, he would be better placed to champion a step-change increase in funding research from the 0.8 percent of GDP (World Bank data) to at least 1.5 percent. This will enable institutions to attract top-notch talent, acquire state-of-the-art equipment and pay stipends and tuition waivers for postgraduate students.

Three, there is a sizeable army of diaspora Kenyans with PhDs; with proper incentives, he might have some leverage luring them back home to tap into their unique skill sets and expertise.

The ball is in your court, Dr Ruto!

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