Doctoral education in Catalonia – an overview

The study visit of the delegation from Kenyatta University comprised as one of the main goals to get to know, in situ, the organization and functioning of doctoral education in Catalonia.

Claudi Alzina from the Inter-university Council of the Generalitat de Catalunya gave an interesting overview of doctoral studies in Catalonia. He states that with a production of around 1.600 thesis each year it is impossible (and not desirable) for the university system to keep all PhDs in their institutions. On the contrary, employment will be basically outside academia in the future. He identifies as one of the major challenges universities in Catalonia face regarding doctoral education currently the enhancement of collaboration with the industry sector in order to create high qualified workplaces to absorb these highly qualified people. In this sense, it is necessary to improve the image PhD holders enjoy in society in general, particularly in industry, where having a PhD is not yet seen as an asset and not always appreciated. To improve this issue, the Government of Catalonia initiated one year ago a programme of industrial doctorates, linking universities and industry through PhD students. Besides the supervisor belonging to one of the Catalan universities, each student in this programme has a second supervisor from a company. At the same time, in his doctoral thesis he tries to solve a problem which is of interest for industry. Alzina hopes that through this initiative, the appreciation for doctorates in industry will increase, creating at the same time more opportunities for getting a job in industry once the PhD is finished.

Another interesting topic is the high percentatge of international students involved in doctoral programmes in Catalonia. More than 25% of all PhD students at the Catalan universities come from abroad. In order to still increase this number of international PhD students, the Government fosters masters and doctoral programmes taught in English, tries to incorporate more international professors at the Catalan universities, encourages inter-university collaboration at postgraduate level and fosters the increase of research programmes of international interest.

While visiting four of the member universities of ACUP (UB, UAB, UPC and UPF) we learned that there has been sustantial changes in the Spanish system of doctoral studies introduced recently through a royal act passed in 2011 (following previous royal acts from 1998, regulating PhD studies with courses, 2005, adapting doctoral programmes to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), and 2007).

Acording to this new royal act, universities are now obliged to create doctoral schools if they do not have one yet, as for example the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) that created their Postgraduate School already 20 years ago.

Another reform introduced by this act is the obligatory annual assessment of the progress students have made in the elaboration of their thesis. With the aim of reducing the necessary time to finish doctoral thesis to 3 years and to improve the quality of them every student hast to pass every year an exam or oral presentation. This activity also facilitates to measure the quality of supervision and increases the accountability of the professor.It might still lower the average age that PhD students have in Catalonia when finishing their thesis, currantly between 23 and 28 years, already very low in comparison of the PhD students at Kenyatta University.

The new act also obliges to sign a document of commitment signed by both the student and the supervisor that helps to improve the relationship among them, establishing the supervision tasks contributing thus to avoid misunderstandings.

A part from the reforms introduced by the royal act from 2011 we learned that there is little recognition of supervision in the Catalan university system: only 25 hours from more than 1.000 hours in the conctract of the professors correspond to supervision. Promotion does not take into consideration time and efforts dedicated to supervising PhD students.

In relationship to one of the biggest challenges KU is facing regarding supervision, overworked professors as they have to supervise big numbers of PhD students, the Catalan universities stated that, in general, the ratio supervisor – PhD students is quite low. At UAB, for example, currently the ratio is 1 PhD student per 1 supervisor, allowing a maximum of 5 PhD students per supervisor as an internal rule for quality assessment.

Regarding e-supervision of doctoral students, currently none of the presential universities in Catalonia has an official e-supervision system put into practice. Nevertheless, the responsibles of the Doctoral Schools state that legally e-supervision would be possible, but that there are no structures or managing schemes in place to pass from face to face supervision to an increasing number of e-supervised PhD students.


Kenyatta University meets Catalonia

On Sunday the delegation from Kenyatta University, formed by Prof. Paul Okemo, Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Stephen Nyaga, Academic Registrar, and Dr. Maina Mwangi, Director of Grant Writing, arrived in Barcelona. The goal of their visit is to get to know the Catalan university system, especially the functioning and management of doctoral education and supervision.

The first two days of the study visit we dedicated to get to know the Inter-University Council of Catalonia as well as four  universities that form part of the Catalan Association of Public Universities. On Monday morning, Claudi Alzina, the Secretary of Universities at the Government of the Generalitat de Catalunya received the Kenyan delegation, introducing the Catalan university system and giving and broad overview of the current situation of higher education in general and doctoral education specifically here in Catalonia. Right after this introductory meeting, a team from the Doctoral School of the Universitat de Barcelona (UB) received us to explain their work in a beautiful modernist surrounding. After lunch we took the train outside Barcelona to visit the green campus of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and learn more about their Graduate School as well as the Fundació Autònoma Solidària (FAS).

The delegation of KU at UAB

Yesterday both the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), even though the university was celebrating elections for the rector, received the delegation, explaining in detail their doctoral programmes.

All the visits have served to start establishing first contacts between Kenyatta University and these Catalan universities who, until the moment, have not been working together. Mostly in the areas of health sciences, engineering and economics Kenyatta University is very interested and establish cooperations in order to enhance the number of PhDs in this knowledge areas at their institution.



The last day of our visit to KU coincided with the 34th Graduation Ceremony at Kenyatta University to which we were cordially invited. After a reception at the Vice-Chancellor’s office at seven o’clock in the morning, we were dressed in the beautiful KU gowns and participated in the procession to the Graduation Square. During five hours we could be testimonies of the interventions of university officials, the award of Honoris Causa to the Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, chanting and dancing from different assemblies of the music department as well as the conferring of the degrees to 2.679 graduates by name (2.013 undergraduates, 440 masters and 26 PhDs). The Ceremony ended with a beautiful luncheon at the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn.

This Ceremony represented the beautiful end of a constructive and very interesting study visit here at KU in which we had not only the opportunity to learn more about the subjects related to our project, but also to get to know wonderful people who gifted us with immense hospitality throughout our visit.

Asanti sana na kwaheri ya kuonana

Family photo at the Graduation ceremony at Kenyatta University

Graduation ceremony at Kenyatta University

Lessons learned and steps forward

After four intensive days at KU, exchanging and discussin about doctoral programmes and e-supervision, yesterday afternoon we did a wrap up meeting, analysing the lessons learned from this first study visit as well as agreeing on the next steps to be put into practice during the coming days, weeks, months and even years.

Everyone agreed that the challenges KU is facing in these moments in relationship with doctoral programmes and the enhancement of e-supervision are the following:

– Supervisors are overwhelmed by the time they spend on supervision, dedicating many hours on face to meetings hours with their students. As a consequence, many of them are highly overworked.

– The availability of a stable and fast connection to the Internet is still a pending issue at KU in these moments.

– Available e-resources, like access to e-journals at the university library, are underutilised.

– There’s a lack of trust in peer reviewing and sharing publicly research results.

Despite these challenges, we identified many factors that are already given and can contribute to enhance e-supervision of PhD students:

– Through the seminars and workshops implemented during this week, we realized that there is a big motivation and interest on behalf of the PhD students as well as the supervisors to get to understand e-research and learn how to use web 2.0 tools for their research.

– The leaders of KU are convinced that the future of supervision will be digital, a leadership indispensable for promoting the digitalization of KU.

During the next months, until the visit of the KU delegation to Catalonia, we will enhance the PhD students and their supervisors to keep on exploring the new instruments and concepts they got to know during these days, setting up their own websites and trying to put into practice first e-supervision experiences.

It got clear, though, that there’s a need to organise more training courses that facilitate the students and supervisors to get a more profound knowledge of these instruments, as the implemented workshop could only give a broad overview of some of the web 2.0 tools.

Beside this work on a micro level, closely related to the PLE-PhD project, KU identified the need to foster changes in the management of the university, setting up structures inside the university to manage e-supervision. The main goal will be to mainstream digitalization throughout the university to set a wider ground for the implementation of e-supervision. Furthermore, there’s a necessity to update the existing virtual campus, developing a more suitable platform. E-supervision is not purely academic but starts with making the whole university digital. This implies a global change of mindset, not only regarding supervision. It will be therefore necessary for KU to think in a broader scope, setting up an institutional strategy on digitalizing the campus.

Enhancing eResearch and PLEDs at KU

The morning of the third day of our study visit at KU was dedicated to share the incipient and recent experiences that different Catalan researchers have with eResearch and Personal Learning Environments. Ismael Peña-López, lecturer at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university explained, using his personal experience as example, how he improved his visibility of his research and build a specialized network through the use of social media and other web 2.0 tools.

Ismael Peña networking during the coffee break

Ismael Peña networking during the coffee break

Taking notes on conferences directly on a publicly accessible blog allows you to extend the discussions beyond the conference itself. Uploading your presentations on sites like Slideshare, for instance, gives access to a larger public to these contents, and facilitates the building of networks around this presentation. Ismael is convinced that you have to speak out, telling the people what you are working on and that the more you give and share, the more you will get back. Through the fact of sharing your research throughout the whole research process – from having an idea over reading to publishing a research paper – you can benefit from the work others do.

Regarding e-supervision, the simple fact of sharing, for example, what you are reading on your personal blog on through other web tools, can reduce office hours with your students as you can send them directly to this list.

A large number of masters and PhD students as well as supervirsors from KU followed the presentations with big interest, raising many questions, especially about the frontier between formal and informal research as well as where to start from.

Image of Group of the audience at the presentation

Group photo of the audience at the presentation


Challenges of graduate education at Kenyatta University

The second day of our study visit has been dedicated to get to know in detail the issues related to doctoral studies and e-supervision at KU. We started the day with an inspiring presentation of Prof. Paul Okemo, Dean of the Graduate School, on research modules at KU.

According to Prof. Okemo, after the re-introduction of free primary education in Kenya under President Mwai Kibaki in 2003, a massification process of the universities started, reaching also postgraduate levels. The number of postgraduate students at KU went up from 3.716 in 2011 to 7.109 in 2013. Despite this increased intake of postgraduate students, the regulations regarding master’s and doctoral education, inherited mainly from the University of Nairobi as the “mother” of most of the higher education institutions currently existing in Kenya, remain more or less the same. As one of the consequences, the ratio of student – lecturer has increased greatly and it is difficult for the supervisor to stay in conduct with all his postgraduate students and effectively guide their research.

Introducing and consolidating e-supervision could be therefore very useful to reduce the workload of the professors. Nevertheless, this will not be possible without also promoting changes in the policies regarding doctoral education, offering, for example, the possibility to professors who do a lot of supervision to be exempted from teaching some units.

Other questions to take into consideration when thinking about the promotion of e-supervision are:

  • Will it be possible to produce credible graduate students reducing the time spend physically on campus?
  • Is it possible to use these innovative methods of supervision without compromising the quality of education and research?
  • How do we benchmark with other universities around the world?
  • How to promote a change of paradigm in order to foster the use of these innovative instruments?

Taking into consideration that the intake of graduate students still has to be increased and the lack of space to accommodate them, the lack of facilities to enable them to realize their goals and the lack of enough lecturers to attend them, e-supervision will have to play a key role in the future of doctoral education at KU.

In all this discussion, both the Catalan as well as the Kenyan universities must ask themselves how they can guarantee that the massification of education contributes to the socioeconomic development of their countries and does not produce a hemorrhage of students, emigrating to other countries.

Photo of KU-UOC meeting

KU-ACUP-UOC meeting

Kenyatta University – a 21st century university

Family photo

Family photo

During the first day of our study visit to Kenyatta University we had the opportunity to get to know vibrant campuses and the ambitious future vision of this institution. Under the leadership of the Vice-chancellor Olive Mugenda, Kenyatta University (KU) is putting into practice a visionary growth and expansion programme, aspiring to become in short the best ranked university in Kenya and being situated among the best universities on the African continent.

KU experimented, like many other higher education institutions all over the world, a huge growth in their student population. Attending around 15.000 students in 2006, KU has today more than 60.000 students. Also at postgraduate level, the student numbers have being growing much over the last years. Unfortunately, the number of faculty did not grow on the same pace. Furthermore, there’s still quite a big percentage of faculty that does not have a PhD. One of the biggest challenges is therefore to upgrade faculty, facilitating to do their PhDs.

To respond to the increasing academic needs, KU invested and keeps investing in infrastructure on all its campuses. We visited some of the impressive buildings that have been constructed over the last few years like, for example, the Post-Modern Library, the Amphitheatre or the Business Innovation and Incubation Center and saw many other buildings currently under construction like the new School or Law of the Graduate School, just to mention a few.

Photo of the New School of Law, Kenyatta University

New School of Law, Kenyatta University

Photo of the Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

In order to be able to invest in this ambitious future, KU’s strategy is to rely less and less on scarce government funding, diversifying their income sources. One source, for example, is the recently created Foundation of KU with its head office in the United States, formed by alumni of the institution. The planned Uni City which will offer retail stores, a convention center, hotels, etc. will be another source for income.

KU is also innovating at management level, creating directorates that depend directly from the Vice-chancellor. These structures help to move faster, putting into practice new projects without interfering the academic activity.

During the visits we learned that there exist already different initiatives at KU to make use of ICT for teaching and research. At the City Campus, for instance, some programmes use e-supervision through email in order to attend students from outside Nairobi. At the School of Law, Facebook and an adapted platform are used to keep in touch with the students. Matching the needs of supervising more and more students, some of who live far away from the university, with these incipient online tools showed us that there could be a good basis for introducing e-supervision in postgraduate studies.

Arrival at Kenyatta University

Snapshot of the PLEPhD team getting ready for the kick-off meeting.

The PLE-PhD Catalan team getting ready for the kick-off meeting.

The Catalan delegation, formed by Ismael Peña and Irene Manresa of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and me, Nadja Gmelch from the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) has arrived at Kenyatta University. After a warm welcome by David Njoroge at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, we travelled through Nairobi City to the Campus of Kenyatta University and installed ourselves at the residence of the Conference Center of KU (KUCC).

After some initial difficulties with the Internet connection, (how do you install a proxy server?), we are online and ready for an intensive study week here at KU. The programme the KU team prepared for us looks very interesting and we are very much looking forward to getting to know all the people involved in this project on KU side. Besides getting to know each other and learning about the doctoral programmes at KU as well as their virtual campus, e-library and e-research activities, the main goal of this week is to get in touch with interested PhD-students and professors who want to create their own PLEDS.
The PLE-PhD adventure begins, come and join us here at KU during the coming days!