The recently concluded conference on the State of Higher Education in Kenya held at Kenyatta University was, perhaps, the most significant event in higher education this year. It, among other things, raised the red flag on some of the bad practices and approaches to higher education management and the pedagogic weaknesses that have reduced universities to machines that vomit out poorly skilled graduates year in year out, who are unable to undertake duties for which they were trained for.
Tangible research findings on employability of graduates have continued to expose the soft underbelly of our education system. In a nutshell, studies reveal that over half of our graduates are unprepared for the job market. In a publication unveiled during the conference entitled ‘The State of University Education,’ it was revealed that universities have continued to fragment programmes into small units that do give the students enough exposure for what they need to know as undergraduate students. We now have Bachelor of Science students who study a single subject for four years. But our problems are more than this.
The number of post-graduate students enrolled in universities from where we will draw the next generation of academics is very low. Besides, the instruction they are receiving is suspect due to shortage of qualified supervisors.
The shortage of qualified scholars who hold PhD degrees is acute. In some programmes, Masters degree holders are teaching masters students! There are more Masters degree holders teaching in our universities than doctoral degree holders.
In view of this reality, the deadline set by Commission for University Education (CUE) requiring all lecturers in universities to be holders of doctoral degrees by 2018 might be missed. It has also been noted that most of the PhDs being produced are in arts and social sciences and not in pure sciences and technology. A more fundamental challenge is that those who supervise post-graduate students have no pedagogical training to do so and universities hardly invest in training supervisors.
Compounded by the issue of underfunding from the exchequer, public universities stand precarious on a cliff of disaster. Desperate to survive and generate income, universities have opened unviable outposts, some of which are a mockery to university education. To protect the integrity of our university qualifications, the Cabinet Secretary has slapped a ban on establishment of new campuses. On its part, the Commission for University Education (CUE) has developed standards that will, if applied fully, see most of these outposts closed down. I have to admit that some of these campuses operate in infrastructure not even fit for intermediate education.
So what is the way forward for our universities? Universities will have to develop better methods of survival that do not compromise standards. They have to brand in order to attract international students. This will involve setting up new strategies and being visible internationally. It is important to mention that universities with strong Senate Committees that rigorously engage in academic discourses without fear of intimidation from management will create conducive ambiance for intellectual growth. In the same vein, those universities with strong niche areas in specialised fields will be able to survive the turmoil of the years to come. Those which remain backward and look nostalgically back on the days when lots of money would be generated from privately sponsored students’ programmes will perish. It is not an over exaggeration to say that some universities being set up today will fold in the near future. This is not new. It happens even in developed countries.
It has further been noted that most of the universities in Kenya have minimal capacity to deal with students with disabilities. Again, the universities that brand along lines of providing first class facilities for students with disabilities will be able to curve a niche area in the market.
But more significantly, with a powerful and revamped regulator, universities that do not adhere to the Commission for University Education harmonised criteria for promotion will loose the trust of the public that has become so vigilant on quality of educational services offered by universities. Those universities which rely on part time lecturers will not be able to hide for so long.
Universities have to diversify their sources of income and increase allocation of funds to research. More importantly, universities will have to focus on quality than quantity and put in place structures that will ensure that they produce graduates that march the expectations of the industry. We have to engage industry much more, not only in curriculum development, as it is the case, but also in provision of hands on apprenticeship programmes.
The bottom line is that universities have to brand along lines of their strength and produce quality graduates and meaningful research outputs. The battle is no longer on opening of satellite campuses, but on research outputs, attraction of research funds and customer satisfaction.
Evolution of a framework for resource sharing especially in programmes where virtually all our universities have shortage of staff and infrastructure is yet another viable direction. Universities have to invest heavily in staff development and the building of a research culture that will ensure renewed commitment to scholarships and search for knowledge. Yes, only universities that build a strong brand will survive.
Prof Kabaji is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Planning, Research and Innovation) at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) [email protected]