Radio review: Dr, Why?, and The Inquiry: Is the China-Africa love affair over?

09 November 2018

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IF I were her supervisor, I would be worried about Faith. She has a viva exam for her Ph.D. in three weeks’ time, and yet, on the evidence of her conversation with Tim Samuels in Dr, Why? (repeat) (Radio 4, Monday of last week), cannot actually explain what her research is about. She had a go. Something about storytelling controlling people’s minds. But we were all lost. It’s one thing to have a Ph.D. title that nobody understands, but the inability to give a comprehensible précis of your work hints at a lack of intellectual discipline which goes beyond mere specialism.

By contrast, Tom is doing his Ph.D. on skateboarding. Everybody knows what that is, and yet, as Tom explained, there are only five academics in the entire world studying it. Tom wants to be the sixth, but his problem is convincing us that there is something in skateboarding worth studying.

Meanwhile, Joy is 91 years old, has half a dozen Master’s degrees in the bag, and is now researching for a Ph.D.; and she doesn’t give two hoots whether it is worth while or not. She loves the process, and it “stops me going demented”.

Samuels’s entertaining investigation of the Ph.D. industry enquired only gently of the utility of all this research, or whether the two letters before your name are really worth remortgaging the family home for. The number of Ph.D. candidates is rising all the time; yet the number of academic jobs is dwindling. Much of the expansion comes from foreign students who pay a great deal more — and it would be a confident Faculty Head indeed who would turn away the Chinese student prepared to pay tens of thousands of pounds to study ancient Chinese chimestones in a country guaranteed to have less primary-research resources than her own.

The Chinese hunger to invest abroad is not, of course, confined to education. While the story of 19th- and early-20th-century international relations was the story of Western European colonialism, in the 21st century it is all about the new Chinese colonialism, as exercised in Africa. In The Inquiry: Is the China-Africa love affair over? (World Service, Thursday of last week), we heard from experts about the potentially deleterious consequences of African debt to China, and the discontent that is brewing in countries such as Sierra Leone and Zambia.

The great debt amnesty that was such an impressive campaign of the millennium years has proved, according to some, of only fleeting benefit: Zambia, for instance, is now in greater debt to China than it was to Western governments in the 1990s. Airports, suburbs whose apartments nobody can afford, roads to nowhere — these are the vanity projects that Chinese money has facilitated.

Now the Chinese have put a freeze on African investment. Is that because they have the interests of the African debtor nations at heart, or because they recognise that a parasitical relationship can work only when the host remains alive?

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