Of Dying Universities and an Ailing SectorJanuary 26, 2018
Imminent closure of universities
I know we are bound to pretend that the imminent closure of Presbyterian University is breaking news. I know we will feign shock at reports that Kenya Methodist University and Catholic University of East Africa may follow suit. It’s typical of us Kenyans. The truth is, private universities have been suffering for a long time now, not just the three. Public universities too would close if they weren’t supported by the government to stay afloat.
Are we forcing growth?
You see, higher education in Kenya is still in its infancy. Let’s say, relative infancy. Why am I saying this? The University of Oxford started in the 11th century, and long before then, there was the University of Paris. The University of Cambridge started in the 13th century, while the famous Harvard started in 1636 with Yale starting way back in 1701. The British brought us our first university, Makerere, in the 20th century from where we got University of Nairobi and University of Dar Es Salaam. We rapidly expanded university education to create five public universities and gave charters to a few faith based institutions, granting them the power to offer theological and pastoral programs up to PhD level.
What did we do next? We had to expand the market for higher education by loosening the strings on academic excellence. The truth is, we had too many institutions but few learners to pursue the programs on offer. At one point, the University of Nairobi used to admit only 20 individuals to study medicine, pharmacy or engineering and the cut off entry requirement to these programs was a straight A. The rich felt something had to be done and they colluded with the forces that be to ensure that these programs became available to the monied. Imagine paying taxes to support a school of medicine to which only the brainy poor could access!
Cartels in education
We started selling exams to schools that could afford to pay for either the leakage or the grades. This created a massive number of students transitioning from our high schools and competing for the limited space at the top. Universities responded by setting up parallel programs in order to absorb these change in fortune. Private Universities expanded to offer more courses at a lower fees in order to benefit and the result was all our villages having hundreds of graduates when twenty years ago, finding a university student outside Nairobi (battling the police on the streets) was akin to isolating a pin from a haystack.
Something had to be done to bring back sanity to our education and that thing happened to be Dr. Fred Matiang’i. I applaud his efforts and mentioned in social media that he would be replaced after Uhuru Kenyatta reconstituted his cabinet. Uhuru hasn’t replaced him yet, but he is surely on his way out of the Education ministry because cartels are not happy with the changes he has brought in. Kenya has close to 100 universities offering hundreds of university programs, and just like it was in the beginning, there aren’t many students to go round.
Death of parallel programs
The parallel programs have died and universities, including the public ones are ailing. They have been starved of funds, not by the exchequer, but by Matiang’i reforms. University of Nairobi has been desperately advertising since November last year, yet its classes are empty. Some Masters Degree Programs have one or two students, and this has been the case for a long time now.
The way forward
What is the way forward? It is very simple. Universities must look beyond student fees as their primary source of revenue. They must:
- Partner with research firms and attract extra funding from global players. Can Apple, Microsoft and Lenovo invest into our technology programs? Why study engineering when you can’t manufacture an engine? Why study pharmacy to degree level but can’t manufacture paracetamol?
- Enter into public-private partnerships that will finance their infrastructural development programs. Kenyatta University has done well on this from and it might be the only public university that survives the current turbulence. Pharmaceutical companies should partner with our ailing institutions to create something.
- Scale down on the number of programs they offer and return to specialty programs like it was in the beginning. We don’t need 10 universities offering medicine, we don’t need 10 universities offering engineering, and we don’t need 20 universities offering nursing. Egerton should have specialized in Agriculture, UoN should have remained with Medical Sciences, Kenyatta should have remained with Education, and faith based universities should have remained theological. The newly upgraded universities are better off going back to what they were: Technical colleges!!!
- Retain Matiang’i in education. Uhuru has decided to shift him to security, his acting at the ministry of education will come to an end, and that’s very unfortunate bearing in mind that he was doing great.