Kenyan universities do hardly any research — who has the time?

Friday March 20 2015

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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The picture below, borrowed from Prof Calestous Juma, depicts in very simple terms the complicated relationship between equality and justice.

For many, equality and justice are interchangeable concepts. Inequality has always been the eyesore of mankind. Modern constitutionalism cannot stomach it and anyone, any ruler, who attempts to place himself or herself above the law is immediately rebuked.

Whether we like it or not, we have a very materialistic outlook of the world and its peoples. No matter what the law says and how much we talk about equality, we judge people and classify them into the “haves” and “have-nots”. Nairobi is not an exception to this.

If you drive an expensive car, a hawker will approach offering you a variety of high-flying expensive magazines: The Economist, Fortune 500 or Financial Report.

If you drive an ordinary Toyota or a Blue Subaru, these same hawkers will offer you jumper cables, toolkits and wipers. It is clear that for them not everyone is equal, or some are more equal than others.



PICTURE | CALESTOUS JUMA | TWITTER

PICTURE | CALESTOUS JUMA | TWITTER

These inequalities are also inside each of us, in our attitude and imagination. Carol Maingi explained to me that traffic and jam do not mean the same thing for her friends.

"If you live in Lavington, Runda, Kitisuru or Muthaiga," she said, "and you drive daily through Uhuru Highway, State House Road or James Gichuru Road, you are not in a jam, but in traffic."

If you live in Nairobi West, Buruburu, Otiende, South C or Eastlands, then you are in a jam. How could you be in traffic on Jogoo Road, she added, laughing. "That’s a jam."

After these amusing Nairobian jests, which keep our sense of humour alive and intact, we could take a quick look at our Kenyan universities and ask ourselves why they seem to be stuck in a jam, and not in traffic.

The number of universities, graduates and courses have increased manifold in the last 10 years, just like the number of cars in Nairobi.

This increment is not bad, or at least, not necessarily bad. Traffic in Nairobi is a positive sign of a growing economy, though disorderly and poorly planned. In the same way, the expansion of tertiary education is also a progressive sign, a sign of growth and maturity.

NO IMMEDIATE RETURNS

This growth is good. If it were well planned we would be in traffic, but it’s too chaotic. There are too many courses, too suddenly, too fast.

The number of students has suddenly burst. Our university system is like an adolescent who shot up suddenly; his shirts and trousers don’t fit him anymore.

Universities are looking like overgrown adolescents in old clothes, just like clowns. Definitely, our tertiary education is in a jam, not in traffic.

The challenge is to get ourselves organised and move from jam to traffic. The Commission for University Education is trying its best to keep up with chaotic institutional growth.

The challenge is how to maintain quality standards and guarantee that colleges are teaching, not cheating.

The magic word is "research". A university that is not pushing forward a serious and properly planned research agenda is not a real academic institution, but just a money-making venture.

Research is essential in emerging economies. It costs money and brings no immediate returns. From a financial perspective, research is that annoyingly "lost" investment, a waste, a lavish dissipation of desperately desired funds.

But from an academic perspective, research is what really differentiates a university from any other educational institutions. Without research, our universities will become irrelevant to society.

James Mugendi wrote about this a few days ago. He blamed the lack of local research on cost-cutting measures. Mugendi has a point, though the root of the trouble goes beyond finances.

NO TIME

The root cause of our academic apathy is an unethical practice that we have condoned for too long. It is a practice that has eroded innovation, dedication and excellence, a practice based on the fallacy that a person could hold two or three full-time jobs at once.

A full-time lecturer who holds another full-time job is fooling himself or herself, and his or her students. This person will not have time to prepare lecturers, to innovate, to dedicate time to students and pupils.

Neither will he or she have time to create a school of thought, to seek grants or to dedicate any time or energy to such a demanding activity as research.

The government is not to blame for our little impact on government policy-making. Certainly, financial incentives by the government would be a great help to move the research agenda forward, but the root cause of our academic mediocrity, our intellectual stagnation and our lack of interest in peer-reviewed publishing is our lack of time.

More than one full-time job is really fooling the jobs, since none of them gets done.

Universities need to be more assertive and less complacent. Full-time employment is not the same as fooling all the time. A person who holds more than one full-time job at a time is fooling himself or herself.

He or she has taken the wrong shortcut for the sake of immediate gratification. This attitude turns potentially great academic scholars into academic grasshoppers who will never publish, but simply perish, in a jam.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected], Twitter: @lgfranceschi