The announcement by the Commission for Higher Education (CHE) that it plans to start ranking universities has elicited mixed reactions.
According to the commission’s new chairman, Prof David Some, the exercise, which will run for an initial pilot period of three years to give universities a chance to understand it, aims to improve university education in Kenya.
“Ranking is one of the ways to stimulate competition among universities, promote quality, enhance access, and elicit public confidence,” he said during an interview recently.
CHE, a government organisation charged with the responsibility of enforcing learning standards, will lead the process.
The proposed rankings come at a time when Kenya is seeking ways to improve higher education standards which have been affected caused by overcrowded classes and inadequate numbers of teaching staff.
The perception of declining quality of education in local institutions is believed to be pushing more Kenyan students to foreign universities.
In recent years, there has been a general perception, especially among employers, that the quality of higher education has deteriorated. Many institutions have established campuses and learning centres with little regard to the conduciveness of the environment.
The rapid expansion has also constrained resources, including lecturers, leading many institutions to yield to the temptation to hire less qualified personnel.
The parallel degree programmes, driven by commercial interests, have attracted an unmanageable number of students and it is common for students to miss seats in lecture halls. Some learn while standing or sitting on the floor.
According to Prof Some, the ranking system is expected to identify and promote sensible quality parameters for both private and public universities. It is hoped that this will push universities to improve their standards in order to get good ratings.
Kenyan universities rely on international ranking institutions, such as Webometrics coordinated from Spain, to gauge their reputation in the continental and global higher education arena.
However, the ranking by Webometrics is based on the Web presence of universities, implying that those with an elaborate website and good hits could be ranked above those with a not-so-impressive Internet presence.
Stakeholders say that this is not a realistic method as it leaves out crucial parameters for genuine assessment.
The CHE formula will seek to ensure that the appraisal will be based on the institutions’ learning and research impact, not merely size and number of courses on offer.
Therefore, one of the key factors to be considered will be the reputation of the institution among employers, the quality of its facilities in relation to the programmes on offer, and its lecturer-student ratios.
CPS International, a research institution with an interest in education, prefers that universities’ uptake of information communication technology be given prominence in the ranking.
This is to take into account the growing need for e-learning as the number of students in need of university studies overwhelm physical infrastructure, in addition to allowing distance studies.
The organisation’s lead researcher Mr Dann Mwangi says: “The first online university in Kenya was recently awarded a letter of interim authority to operate, and it is against this background that we have closely been monitoring ICT development in East Africa.”
CPS International argues that ranking of universities in East Africa should be based on the ICT benchmark.
“This will inform the world on the measures taken by East African universities to enhance and sustain quality higher education through the continued use of ICT,” it argued in a statement.
Prof Mayunga Nkunya, the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, points out that even with national ranking of universities, it should not be lost to policy makers that university education in the region must also be gauged with an eye to global standards.
“National policy makers and higher education institutions must take account of a global environment in which international comparisons are constantly made across the world.”
Still, some educationists fear that the ranking could introduce negative energy in higher education, resulting in low morale among staff and students in poorly rated universities.
At a forum held last month to discuss the plan, some participants expressed the view that there was also the possibility that prospective employers could favour graduates from the highly rated institutions.
This, they argued could lead to prejudices and therefore biases during recruitment.