Prof Jairos Kangira
In our experience of editing various master’s and doctoral dissertations of students from Namibian higher education institutions and from elsewhere, we have come to a realisation that some of the errors, especially in the academic work of Namibian students, are shocking and a cause for concern. We have for a long time been trying to find a better way to express our concerns about the serious ways in which students from higher education institutions in Namibia keep deviating from universal academic standards at postgraduate level.
We have noticed that most students who enrol for postgraduate work do not appear prepared for the rigours of independent research and writing required at this advanced level. This is despite the fact that they qualify for postgraduate work on paper, but they do not seemingly have the mental capacity to handle research work.
It is worth mentioning that master’s and PhD candidates are expected to display high level skills acceptable in their areas of specialisation or discourse communities. The common competencies are critical thinking, research skills, communication skills, as well as problem solving skills. These skills should be evident and reflected in the way master’s or PhD candidates reason or express themselves in oral and written forms. However, we have read substandard theses that have left us wondering how they were, in the first place, being allowed to go for examination.
We would like to clarify that the above-mentioned skills are tested throughout the students’ course – be it by thesis or coursework. However, the thesis/dissertation is the main test of abilities, summing up all the skills acquired throughout the academic years of the student; hence, they are expected to prove themselves and strive to excel with distinctions.
We have also noted with grave concern that most students lack proficiency in English as noticed in the uncountable errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation in their work. Some of the errors are of such a basic nature that it boggles our minds how the students were admitted into the postgraduate courses, and also how they passed the previous stages that are supposedly prerequisites.
It would appear as if the students merely write without much attention to aspects that promote effective communication, despite the availability of guidelines for writing or formatting their work. It sometimes also appears that the students would have used incompetent third-party assistants, who are always there for hiring to make money.
It is, however, relieving that our concerns about the substandard of postgraduate theses have been corroborated by internal and external examiners of these theses, which is evident in the manner they point out some of the egregious errors. Moreover, supervisors of these postgraduate students have also expressed frustration with their students, saying students place unrealistic expectations on them, such as to assist them in writing sections of their theses or spoon-feeding them. If this happens, the question that begs an answer is, whose thesis will it then be?
It is important to note that a master’s or PhD candidate is not supposed to be reminded about plagiarism, corrected in terms of referencing and citing, or asked to explain what their statements mean because they should intend to have academic integrity – they should know what they are doing and why they are doing it. However, this is contrary to the events that are happening in academia. Cases of academic dishonesty are increasing at an alarming rate in our universities. What is more disheartening is that master’s and PhD students are also caught in the web of academic fraud – plagiarism, which most deem a normative behaviour.
Thus, universities are tasked to continuously remind students about academic integrity, especially plagiarism, as it does not only reduce the quality of students’ work but it negatively affects the reputation of the institution.
It is worth mentioning that master’s and PhD students are potential educators of undergraduates and postgraduates, so if their competencies are questionable, the cycle of incompetence continues unabated.
In view of the above, we conclude that there is a need to continuously upgrade and monitor academic standards at all levels – individual, departmental, faculty and the entire university level. In fact, Namibian universities should not be completely different from one another in terms of standards and the products they intend to prepare for the market.
There is, moreover, a need to continuously host academic seminars, providing platforms and making it a requirement for postgraduate students to present their work in front of the respective stakeholders of their faculties. These platforms will make students more confident about what they are researching and writing about. Most of the times, these platforms are only for defending research proposals at departmental and faculty level – and then in the case of PhD candidates, the viva voce examinations.
The above are not sufficient platforms to make Namibia as academic as it ought to be, compared to the number of seminars and webinars that South African academics, for example, host. Platforms such as book readings, writing webinars, or any such event for academic debates will allow universities to instil standards in students, further motivating future academics who will maintain the academic standards and integrity, and significantly contribute to the various areas in society and the corporate world.
Finally, we urge higher education institutions in Namibia to employ stringent entry requirements for postgraduate programmes to improve the standard of research and thesis writing. It is important to instil a culture of independent research and study at postgraduate level so that our students shy away from the dependency syndrome.