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Opinion: Defective university systems frustrate postgraduate students

2021-07-16  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion: Defective university systems frustrate postgraduate students

In the past, in this column, I wrote articles in which I was advising postgraduate students on how to handle their postgraduate work, and I castigated those who thrive on academic dishonesty in their researches. I also emphasised strict adherence to academic integrity from proposal stage, research stage and throughout the writing process of the thesis.

 In this article, I want to turn to the other side of the coin – that is, when institutions are at fault, this hinders the progress of students. It is common knowledge that some master’s and doctoral students at universities take longer than the stipulated time to complete their studies. It is also true that others fall on the wayside, as they drop their studies. 

Universities have witnessed very low completion rates of postgraduate students. The numbers of postgraduate students graduating, if at all in some institutions, is disappointing. While students have their share of blame for the low completion rates, it is equally true that we can attribute some of the causes of conundrum and inconveniences to defective systems of their universities. Systems that universities put in place must be there to serve students and other clients. 

More often than not, students and stakeholders of universities have bitterly complained about systems that are counter-productive. In the case at hand, through experience and observations, I have come to realise that systems that some universities use in processing postgraduate work do not help students to progress steadily during their researches.  It is discouraging that some systems and demands do actually hinder students’ progress instead of facilitating research and completion of master’s and doctoral studies. 

In some universities, the processes of application for postgraduate studies and allocation of supervisors take far too long. Even when students are finally allocated to supervisors, the processes that students have to go through to have their research proposals approved are so frustrating that many students drop their studies at this stage. While the presentation of research proposals assists students to be more focussed in various aspects of their researches, the exercise has turned to be more punitive than helpful, as students are sometimes unfairly grilled by academics – as if they have already completed the study, and are now defending their findings. 

 Some of the questions that students are asked are neither not relevant to their researches nor appropriate at proposal stage. Some students have made genuine complaints that they are asked questions that are not related to their areas of specialisation by some influential members of the academic boards responsible for reviewing proposals. In most cases, students fail to pass their research proposal presentations – not because they have not grasped their research areas, but because the research methodologies and theories they use in their disciplines are unfairly condemned by academics from different disciplines, who strictly impose their own methodologies and technologies. 

What academics do not consider, in this case, is that although there are common aspects of research that run across disciplines, universalising researches at postgraduate level by insisting on rigid demands for all subjects does not produce the required results in the end. Such a system or stance leaves many students disgruntled and discouraged, as they fail to proceed with their researches on flimsy grounds. The back-and-forth exercise students are forced into as they attempt to resubmit their previously rejected proposals does not help to provide confidence in students, who end up dejected and dropping out of their studies.

 It is not an exaggeration to state that some students have spent more than one year at proposal stage because of the faulty systems at higher education institutions. This means that the affected students will have wasted the whole year without having started their researches, as they cannot do that without the approval of their research proposals. In some cases, students take their rejected proposals to other universities, and they are accepted with few or no corrections at all. 

 Some supervisors affect students’ progress in many ways. When supervisors throw their students into the deep end without clear deadlines, it becomes difficult for most students to set timelines for themselves. The general folly of laxity creeps in and time moves fast before one realises it. Without planned guidance, students end up losing motivation and confidence in their work. This may lead to complete lack of interest in their studies. While I reiterate that students must be responsible of their postgraduate work, this does not give licence to supervisors to abandon their students in the name of academic independence.

One serious problem that affects students’ progress is that some universities do not offer academic writing coaching services for their students. Some students come back to university to undertake their postgraduate research after spending many years without getting involved with academic work or writing something substantial. There is, therefore, need to offer some academic writing training for some few months before they embark on their researches. Academic writing coaching can be successfully offered online with amazing results. Joana Joseph Jerayaj (2020) correctly argues that “By identifying students’ writing needs and areas of support, steps to mitigate untimely completion rates among postgraduate students can be addressed and areas which could lead to greater student satisfaction can be determined” (p. 3). 

There is no doubt that universities that have systems that are effective and student-friendly have posted impressive results as far as their postgraduate students are concerned. Conversely, universities that have ineffective and defective systems have low postgraduate completion rate.


2021-07-16  Prof Jairos Kangira

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