Just what ails higher education in this country?

Sunday January 31 2016

Students of Kisii University, Eldoret Campus demonstrate in Eldoret town on January 26, 2016, to protest a decision by the Commission on University Education to close down 10 of the institution's campuses across the country. They wanted the decision rescinded. PHORO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Students of Kisii University, Eldoret Campus, demonstrate in Eldoret town on January 26, 2016, to protest a decision by the Commission on University Education to close down 10 of the institution's campuses across the country. They wanted the decision rescinded. PHORO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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In the middle of January, 2016, the Commission for University Education (CUE) ordered the closure of about 11 campuses of two public universities.

The Commission cited their failure to meet the requirements that the Commission has established to help improve production of quality knowledge in our universities.

The order to close these campuses followed inspection of university campuses in Western, Nyanza and Rift Valley regions of the country. These 11 therefore are the result of partial assessment of the universities in the country.

The number of campuses that the Commission could have ordered to close would have been more had the Commission audited all the campuses in the country. This is evident from the grievances that the students cite while conducting protests in the streets in various towns housing their campuses.

These 11 campuses therefore are just the tip of an iceberg; the quality of our campuses and knowledge production has been on the decline.

Several factors have contributed to this. One of these is the politicised recruitment of vice-chancellors and their deputies, as well as politicised process of recruiting council members.

Also notable here is establishment of universities along ethnic lines. Every ethnic group wants to have its own university and therefore there are now colleges bearing the name of a university when they are can only pass for a community college.

Although there is an emphasis on competitiveness in recruiting the vice-chancellors and the deputies, as well as the principals of various university colleges, this requirement is poorly adhered to. There is a way of circumventing it.


Merit and ability to deliver were central in the criteria for recruitment into these posts in the period between 2005 and 2007. A few universities went a step further.

They outsourced the recruitment process to international firms. They also advertised in international media. This way, they attracted the best men and women to serve as vice-chancellors and their deputies.

The government also identified relatively successful private sector individuals for the posts of chairmen of the council. Eminent persons were identified for the post of chancellors.

What started as a good exercise did not take long before the universities turned to old habits. Today, it is only the post of the “Chancellor of the University” that remains as originally crafted.

Eminent individuals are chancellors in both public and private universities across the country. Some of these are successful retired academics, while others are successful entrepreneurs. They all have good knowledge to offer for the development of their universities.

But this is not true of all the chairs of councils, the vice-chancellors and their deputies. Some chairs and vice-chancellors have stood up quite well in steering their universities to becoming knowledge centres. However, the majority are clueless about the significance and centrality of universities to national development.

The vice-chancellors who were recruited competitively in the period between 2005 and 2007 did quite well in turning around the universities because they were all in deplorable conditions.

Their first five-year term came to an end during the period of the Grand Coalition Government. This is the period when issues of “who – between the two parties in government – has what” and which ethnic community has got what, began to inform the process of appointments in the public sector.


There was no emphasis on competitive recruitment in many instances. Because of this, the universities did not turn to the international recruiting firms to assist in sourcing for applications. They recruited internally, meaning they “automatically” renewed contracts of those in office.

The coalition politics as well as ethnic perceptions spilled over to the recruitment of their deputies. Merit was de-emphasised. Some of the people were recruited simply to satisfy ethnic and political considerations.

This devalued the significance of these posts and created opportunities for mediocrity in the universities.

Culture of mediocrity

This approach resulted in recruitment of individuals seeking senior posts at universities as an end rather than a means to an end. Some of those recruited had not published in “high impact” international journals in the last 10 years. Today, they have limited state of knowledge in their disciplines. They are just administrators doing what they were not trained to do.

There are younger ones who have been very prolific in publishing. However, their number is less than five. It is doubtful whether they will maintain their passion for publishing. They will turn grey just like those before them.

Some of those who occupy posts of vice-chancellors and deputies do not have a vision for academic excellence. Sample this ridiculous example:
It is early in the morning. Vice-chancellors are meeting to discuss joint admission of students.

A saloon car runs past where you and colleagues are standing. A Mercedes Benz in parastatal number plates follows it. It screeches to a halt and a young man jumps out from the left front passenger door to open for the “boss” seated on the back left.

Three other young men, armed and wearing oversize jackets and ties on oversize shirts come quickly to the back left side of the Benz. A big burly man gets out of the car. The four young men, clearly armed, surround him on all sides and escort him to the meeting venue.


Another car drives by. Young men come out. They are also armed. Another boss, this time a lady, comes out of the car. They surround her and escort her to the meeting venue.

You may think these are cabinet secretaries or military officials. No. They are vice-chancellors coming to a harmless meeting to discuss placement of students in public universities.

This is a common scene in public universities. Although they are academics recruited to help academic colleagues produce sound knowledge, they are so heavily guarded and secured that they can’t think about knowledge production any more.

Because of this, their idea of a university is not compatible with what Kenya requires in terms of knowledge for development. Simply put, how this post of vice-chancellor in public universities is conceptualised is not compatible with the needs and the vision of the country.

The universities cannot be wholly blamed for the declining standards and quality of education in general.

From the 1990s, the government has had very little interest in knowledge and therefore universities.

Through pressure from the World Bank and the IMF in the 1990s, the government started giving little support to the universities. They were left to fend for themselves yet they are a critical pillar of national development.


Left without much funding, the universities have turned into retail commerce. They are engaged in massive commercialisation of education in a manner that has never been witnessed anywhere else.

They become administrative centred with limited interest in academic affairs. Their motive to raise funds for their survival outweighs the need to engage in scholarship.

Private universities have also proliferated to cash in on fee-paying students. The story is not different.

A while back, many lecturers teaching in private universities knew quite well that the university would not renew their contracts if any student failed. They would pass everyone irrespective of the quality of their work.

Again, left without funding, universities have turned to unprecedented methods of delivery. There are many instances where fresh graduates with a Masters degree teach undergraduate students without supervision by a professor or someone with a PhD.

There is no point to question why this is happening because the country has not invested in production of quality PhD yet there are campuses located in villages across the country. Who is teaching here?

The quality of university education has been on the decline because we have let it to be so. In fact I am intrigued by the manner in which public and private universities devalue the academy and the teaching staff.

There is no university that provides good offices or car parking spaces for their professors, including professor emeritus.

Good offices and car parking spaces are reserved for those without interest in production of knowledge. They are reserved for security officers, finance officers, and others in administrative positions. This is common even in respectable private universities.


This alone tells much about where the focus of our universities is – administration centric to generate money for survival rather than generate knowledge to support national development.

The poor funding by the government, and poor quality of leadership visible in the public and private universities, combine to reduce the value of universities.

They are likely to make the universities irrelevant in terms of generating research, knowledge and skills to support the building of a globally competitive nation, the dream of Kenya.

The new Cabinet Secretary for Education has his work clearly cut for himself. He has to reform the universities to make them relevant.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; [email protected]