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Questioning the relevance of graduate studies in forestry

D.M. Griffin

D.M. GRIFFIN is Professor of Forestry at the Australian National University, Canberra, A.C.T., and Chairman of the FAO Advisory Committee on Forestry Education.

A MALAYSIAN FORESTRY STUDENT WORKING WITH CARIBBEAN PINE IN KUALA LUMPUR more Asian graduate students are studying forestry at home

Some have argued that the traditional PhD research project is as valuable to those from developing as from developed countries. All, it is argued, receive a training in how to construct a hypothesis by carefully considering the existing evidence, how to decide on the experimental programme to test the hypothesis, how actually to carry that programme through, how to analyse the information gathered, how to integrate the new information with that which previously existed and how to present the whole. Here lies the value of the PhD degree, rather than in the problem tackled or the equipment and procedures used. This, as far as it goes, is true but it leaves much unsaid. Whether most PhD projects serve well those who come from, and return to, developing countries is a moot point.

The nature of the problems studied is often without any genuine bearing on the issues uppermost in these countries. Young scientists are led to think of research in terms of sophisticated equipment that will rarely be available to them when they return home. At the worst, they end up shunning broad-based applied projects, assuming that no worthwhile research can be done unless a well-equipped laboratory or field station is available.

Ideally, before a supervisor accepts a Ph.D. student from a developing country, he should have some relevant knowledge of that country (or region), of its needs and facilities, the research project then being chosen with the student's situation in mind. Thus, a research student from Bangladesh coming to Australia to study forest pathology might undertake a project on the leaf parasites of Avicennia, a genus of great importance in the mangrove forestry of Bangladesh and also present, but largely ignored, in Australia. A tree physiologist from Thailand might be given a project on root initiation in planting stumps of teak; and so on. Such projects could with advantage give emphasis to relatively simple experimental techniques and to precise observations with the light microscope while not neglecting to introduce, without undue emphasis, more advanced electron microscope and biochemical techniques to the student.

It is not being suggested here that students from developing countries should be restricted in their general areas of research but that the experimental material and methods should be chosen with an eye to the students' country of origin. It probably follows that departments with a continuing involvement in forestry in developing countries, through both staff and postgraduate students, are most likely to provide the best opportunity for students to obtain research experience onto which they can build when they return home.

What has been said concerning the research programme for a Ph.D. degree applies in large part to the M.Sc. degree by research. Post-graduate re search programmes, however, do not meet some of the greatest needs of developing (or developed) countries. In large part, the need is not to extend the boundaries of knowledge but to apply and integrate existing knowledge. In developing countries, forestry is usually not held back so much by a lack of scientific knowledge as by poor management (in the widest sense) of the resource. Forestry is applied science but also applied economics and applied sociology, all uniting in forest management. The way forward here might be to enrol Master's degree students, who already have at least two years of employment in forestry after graduation, in course work in forest management. Such a course could be conducted with a good deal of flexibility, tailoring it to students with varying academic backgrounds and to forestry in countries at various levels of development. The viability of the course does not, therefore, depend upon constant enrollments from either the home or other countries. Here is an example of such a course at the Australian National University.

Course prescriptions. Candidates are required to undertake eight semester units of course work and to write a substantial essay. Candidates must include at least five course work-units taken within the Department of Forestry in their course. The remainder may be taken internally within the Department of Forestry or may be selected from external units offered by other departments for their Master's degree programme.

Core units. Four of the units are core units normally undertaken by all students. They include a compulsory research project unit involving individual study and research toward the topic of the substantial essay and forest biometrics, forest planning and managerial economics.

Optional forestry units. The following lecture or seminar units will probably be offered: inventory; silviculture and harvesting I (tropical rain forest); silviculture and harvesting II (indigenous eucalypt forest); trade and development economics; transportation economics; tropical plantation forestry.

Substantial essay. The substantial essay must show wide reading and understanding as well as evidence of critical analysis or appropriate use of advanced techniques. Both the quality of the essay and the results of examinations will be taken into account in awarding the degree.

Duration. A full-time candidate for the degree by course work must pursue the prescribed course of study for one calendar year (I March to 28 February).

Post-graduate research programmes do not meet some of the greatest needs of developing countries. In large part, the need is not to extend the boundaries of knowledge, but to apply and integrate relevant and scientific data.

Young scientists are led to think of research in terms of sophisticated equipment that will rarely be available to then when they return home. At worst, they come to shun broad-based applied projects and to assume that no worthwhile research can be done unless a well equipped laboratory or field station is available.

That such a post-graduate course work degree is seen to be appropriate is perhaps evidenced by the enrolment of eleven students from eight developing countries in the (1980) course (Burma, Cyprus, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Tanzania), whereas thirteen students had been enrolled for the Ph.D. and M.Sc. (by research), respectively, during the whole period 1975-80.

Academic standards frequently become an issue with regard to students from developing countries. The first problem arises when admission to candidature is considered. At many universities in the British tradition, a first-class or upper second-class honours degree (or equivalent) is required but is very often not held by applicants. Such students lacking the entrance qualification are often enrolled in a preliminary or qualifying course, whereby, through guided reading and attendance at lectures, they can attain the required standard. Two problems can still arise. Some students perform quite creditably in the qualifying course, yet, for one reason or another, do not proceed to enrol for the M.Sc. They then leave the university with no recognition for their year's work. Other students succeed in their qualifying course but at its conclusion are forced by some circumstance to seek post-graduate enrolment at another university. That other university may not recognize the successful completion of the qualifying course because no formal certificate is issued in connection with it. The Australian National University has recently decided to award a Graduate Diploma in Science (G.Dip.Sc.) to students who perform satisfactorily in a course equivalent to the old qualifying programme. Completion of the course with sufficient distinction will also serve as a qualification of enrolment for the M.Sc.

Standards at completion of the postgraduate course can also be a problem. Do the additional problems inevitably faced by students from developing countries warrant the award of the M.Sc. or Ph.D. to those whose standards of accomplishment are less than those which would be required from a student from the home country? I believe the answer to be "No". The creation of double standards is to be strenuously avoided. Rather, a university department accepting a student from a developing country should acknowledge that it is taking on a much greater-than-average responsibility. Such students will generally require closer supervision and, for instance, more encouragement to generate hypotheses themselves and to argue for them, assistance in the use of large and complex libraries and help in relating their research to the work they will undertake on returning to their home country. Many will need continued and intensive help with language, particularly if they are to produce an acceptable dissertation, and in coming to terms with personal or cultural problems.

Given sufficient attention to such issues, double standards can be avoided and the student will return to his country strengthened by the knowledge that he has performed as well as would be expected of any student. This end is likely to be achieved, however, only if the supervisor is prepared to devote much more time than normal to his supervisory role. It is also aided by the supervisor's continuing experience of developing countries and their students, and by the simultaneous presence of a number of such students in the department.

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