Kenyan universities are in the throes of a crisis that is threatening to explode, throwing the education system into turmoil.
The majority of them, especially public ones, are in the grip of a severe funding tinderbox and all, including private institutions, are grappling with critical challenges regarding quality of teaching, the calibre of faculty and the relevance of courses on offer.
Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, in a blunt assessment of the situation recently, remarked: “ … our university sector is at a crossroads. We must wake up to the reality that various issues have put university education into jeopardy.”
He fell short of ordering an inquiry into the financial health, academic vigour and sustainability of all universities in the country, but he has now called a meeting of all stakeholders to rescue the institutions, put them on a reform path and force them to measure up to some of the best in the world.
The meeting to begin on Monday in Nairobi will comprise senior education officials and top managers of the Commission for University Education, Kenya Colleges and Universities Placement Board, Kenya National Qualifications Authority, vice chancellors, lecturers’ representatives and international organisations with an interest in education such as the World Bank.
Prof Magoha, who spoke during the release of the distribution of last year’s Form Four leavers into universities last month, said:
“Time has come when we must hold candid discussions about the quality of leadership, teaching and research. We must open dialogues to free our public universities from the inherent rigmarole of political capture and unplanned expansion in every nook and cranny.”
Granted, not everything is gloomy about the institutions. Often unreported is the sunny side of things, which is buried in the dizzying litany of woes bedevilling the institutions.
Kenya has always stood out as the region’s de facto powerhouse in Human Capital Index, digital innovation and research output.
According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index report for 2018, Kenya scored 0.52, which is higher than the region’s average at 0.40, and above South Africa, which is ranked at 126 with a score of 0.41.
The report measures the productivity of the future generation of workers, pegged on complete basic education and full health, which means at 0.52, Kenya is at the level of 52 per cent of its full potential.
The same report describes Kenya as one of the fastest growing digital economies, citing innovations such as mobile money transfers and other ICT-led developments.
The University of Nairobi, Moi, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta have been cited globally as top innovation hubs.
Moi has won the Enactus Kenya National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition for two years in a row for its ‘Waste for Wealth’ project, which turns organic waste into tables.
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology has also won top marks in the same competition for its “Save Food Save Life” project, which works to cut post-harvest losses by preserving fruits and vegetables.
Egerton University’s “Green Life Farm Kenya” idea that connects farmers to consumers has also won accolades in the same competition.
Enactus Kenya gives students a platform to showcase their entrepreneurial skills through innovation.
Launched in 2002 following an agreement between Enactus International (then SIFE International) and Inter Region Economic Network (Iren), it operates in 36 countries.
Some of the private universities that have stamped their foot in the ICT world are Zetech, which has signed a partnership with Huawei Technologies Ltd to become a Huawei Authorised Information Network Academy, hoping to prepare graduates for the employment and entrepreneurial market.
Last month, a Mount Kenya University lecturer and researcher won global recognition for developing a bio-pesticide to manage post-harvest losses in grains.
Donatus Njoroge scooped the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (Gist Tech-1) 2019 Award, beating 23 other finalists during the Global Entrepreneurship Congress held in Bahrain on April 17.
Still, for a long time Kenya has stood out on the continent as a research highflier with regard to the number of citable journals and the contributions of universities to the country’s ICT innovation.
However, despite these signs of robustness and prominence across the borders, most universities are grappling with the basics and are on the verge of being pushed to irrelevance.
The rapid expansion of the institutions from around 15 three decades ago to 70, has meant that quality has suffered at the expense of quantity.
Enrolment has hit about 550,000 from 181,000 in 2010. The Commission for University Education says it expects the figure to hit 600,000 by 2022.
While the higher education sector has expanded, the proportion of national expenditure going to public universities has increased only modestly from 15 per cent in 2013/14 to 23 per cent in the current financial year.
But while enrolment has surged, standing at about 11 per cent, it falls short of the Government’s Vision 2030 plan of making the country a newly industrialising nation in the league of countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which boast of an enrolment above 70 per cent.
Though the number of lecturers has risen by at least 13 per cent in the last eight years, it’s a pittance compared to the enrolment surge.
Still, the universities have been unable to modernise their teaching methods in line with modern pedagogical trends and in harmony with the technological revolution.
Most have stuck to the traditional ways of rote learning, antiquated curricula and too much theory at the expense of practical aspects, critical thinking and robust debate through tutorial groups.
The 2017/18 global competitiveness index, which looked at the ease of doing business in Kenya, cited poor work ethics, insufficiently educated workers and failure to innovate as some of the bottlenecks to greater investment in Kenya.
According to a “Skills Mismatch Report” by the Federation of Kenya Employers last year, 66 per cent of university graduates joined the job market unprepared for work and only 34 per cent were “very prepared”.
The report proposed curriculum review to have the courses made more relevant to the job market, a more direct link between faculty and employers and skills that are more practical.
Obviously, this is a sharp indictment on the quality of teaching at the universities, where the ratio of lecturer to student is at times 70:1 compared to the global average of one for every 20.
Another recurrent problem for public universities and some private ones has been student strikes, mostly engineered by politics in the institutions’ management, concerns over insecurity in hostels and other issues disrupting academic calendars.
According to the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), at least 27 universities will this year operate with less than half their capacity because their programmes did not attract applicants.
The International Leadership, University in Nairobi, stood out for failing to attract a single applicant although it has a capacity for 50.
Early this year, the Commission for University Education rejected 133 academic programmes with a capacity for 10,000, because most were duplicated while others were untenable because the institutions did not have the required calibre of lecturers to handle them.
This week’s meeting must aggressively confront these challenges to make higher education viable.