Reforming Higher Education in Kenya: Standpoints for DebateNovember 23, 2018
There is something fundamentally flawed about higher education in Kenya today. The whole system needs serious reform if we are to realize vision 2030 and drive forward jubilee’s big four agenda. While a lot has gone into making basic education accessible to majority of Kenyans, higher education has failed to keep pace. Opportunities have expanded with the creation of 73 universities after middle level tertiary institutions were upgraded but the quality on offer is far from gratifying. It’s clear that more than half of these universities would do with a stronger managerial core, a diversified funding base, an intellectually stimulated academia, an entrepreneurial culture that goes beyond mere mainstreaming but also guarantees improved manufacturing, food security, universal healthcare and affordable housing as well as bridging the mismatch between skills acquired by graduates and the demand from the industry.
Close to 40 of the newly created universities have no capacity to offer masters and doctoral degree programs, leave alone post-doctoral research fellowships. The country has a paltry 400 full professors on whose shoulders lie quality research in our universities. Quick mathematics gives an average of 5 full professors per university, some of whom do not have masters or doctoral degrees but were able to earn full professorship through research and publishing of their research findings. Furthermore, most of these dons are offering their services at the oldest institutions in the country, meaning a huge chunk has remained with the University of Nairobi, with others thinly spread among Kenyatta, Moi, Jomo Kenyatta and Maseno.
Some dons, disillusioned by the returns in academia, decided to leave and either pursue politics, which is more lucrative in Kenya or take up other plum positions on the continent. What would you expect when university lecturers are earning less than MCAs?Given that most of these universities have replicated programs, it’s easy to realize where the problem lies. For example, the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board has licensed 10 universities to offer Medicine while many others are at various stages of approval. Likewise, the Engineers Board of Kenya has cleared 9 universities to offer various Engineering degrees, with many more hurriedly seeking approval with each passing year.
The quality on offer in these universities does not match the quantity being churned out annually. To bridge the gap in quality and increase the capacity of these institutions, it’s necessary that we increase base funding for teaching and research, cut the average time taken to complete a doctoral degree program to less than 5 years (from the current 10-15 years) and pay our professors better than we pay our politicians. More funding and less time taken on doctoral programs will see the number of dons increase in our institutions of higher learning. Public Private Partnerships could also rescue our institutions from artificial death by guaranteeing more funds for research. Can we see more private entities funding research? Privatisation of certain departments or units in public universities can also help. More university publishing houses, teaching and referral hospitals, media houses among others, need to come up.
There is also need to return to the era of specialization. I imagine a situation where the University of Nairobi and Moi University are left as the only two institutions offering Medicine, and producing doctors and surgeons for all the hospitals across the country and a little of everything else. We can have The Technical University of Kenya and say Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology offering Engineering programs for the country while Egerton University concentrates on all matters Agriculture, including Agricultural Engineering. While these are mere examples, it would reduce the constraints currently being experienced by only training what the country can absorb across all sectors.
Kenya should stop training more doctors than clinical officers, more engineers than technicians and more managers than skilled craftsmen. This means strengthening TVET institutions instead of hurriedly upgrading them to university status. Better feasibility studies ought to have been carried out before tens of institutions were given the power to confer degrees. Some of these universities have more diploma than degree programs and have within their ranks, tutors who haven’t cleared their master’s degrees, leave alone embark on PhD. As a result, more than 8000 lecturers are teaching in universities across the country without the requisite doctoral certification, and would have been better off teaching in TVET institutions.
It’s time institutions of higher learning were managed more like business entities and not just schools. There have been cases of university campuses closing or nearing closure when better business decisions would have helped. Very many institutions are debt ridden, many more are grappling with issues of corruption, tribalism and nepotism, while many others are simply hanging on, unable to pay salaries, utility bills and other mundane stuff, leave alone pump money into research. Universities should start employing business administrators from within or without the world of academia based on business acumen, to do fundraising, expert budgeting and launch more Public Private Partnerships, as opposed to basing such appointments on a don’s second name.
Enterprise development in universities seems to have stopped at mainstreaming of entrepreneurship as a theoretical discipline. It’s pleasing to teach entrepreneurship and help learners become innovative and think business, but it would be more satisfactory to actually engage them in real business while undergoing training. Now, how about the school of pharmacy producing actual pharmaceuticals? It doesn’t make lots of sense to train pharmacists up to doctoral level but still import pain killers from India, or train Mechanical Engineers who can’t assemble a bicycle. This is good money going down the drain. Universities and technical colleges need to embrace an entrepreneurial culture that will transform all the theory pumped into young minds into shrewd business practice.
If we aren’t training for the market, we shouldn’t train at all. The mismatch between skills acquired by university graduates and the demands of industry can partially be met by the entrepreneurial culture addressed above and putting an apprenticeship model in place that can ensure that companies co-train the kind of graduates they wish to absorb. While apprenticeship has worked in Germany, Austria, United Kingdom and other first world countries, Kenyan institutions of higher learning are yet to give it a shot. Students would spend up to 50% of their study time doing real work in factories and business enterprises while at the same time learning the theoretical foundations of their chosen trade on campus.
I want to imagine KCC co-training Dairy Technology with a local university, say Egerton, or Tullow Oil co-training students in Petroleum and Geoscience with the University of Nairobi. Such models would not only ensure industry standards for all the beneficiaries of apprenticeship, but also help universities and colleges revamp their outdated curricula in the process. Graduates will exit academic institutions already equipped with the necessary skills and experience required in the actual job market.