The Vision 2030, Kenya’s long-term economic blue print, could remain just that, a pipe dream, if the current trends in university education hold sway.
The economic plan, which aims at transforming Kenya into a newly industrialising middle-income country by giving its citizens a high quality of life by 2030, is anchored on the hope that universities and polytechnics will turbo-charge it by producing top-notch graduates in mathematics, science and technology.
Yet according to a new study by the Commission for University Education for the 2016/2017 academic year, universities are doing quite the opposite.
The report shows that a majority of students in both bachelors and post-graduate levels are opting for arts and humanities, shunning technology and sciences.
In addition to arts and humanities, the other popular academic programmes in both private and public universities are Business Administration, Life Sciences and Physical Sciences.
These courses recorded the highest increase in universities in the 2016/17 academic year, says the document by the Commission for University Education.
For instance, courses under Humanities and Arts increased with 177 programmes, and Business Administration with 52 from the previous academic year.
However, the programmes that are meant to drive the government’s Big Four Agenda — Manufacturing, Universal Health, Affordable Homes and Food Security — are proving to be the least popular. Manufacturing, for example, had only an additional two programmes in the same academic year.
The top four most popular programmes in the 30 public universities were Humanities and Arts (493), Life Science and Physical Science (420), Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (381) and Health and Welfare (331). The least popular courses were Law (8), Manufacturing (11), Architecture (43) and Services with 44.
NEED FOR SKILLS
None of the 18 private universities offered Architecture while there was only one course in Manufacturing, two in Engineering, four in Environment and Forestry and five in Education (sciences).
Most of the courses are in Humanities and Arts (145), Business Administration (11), Health and Welfare (65) and Education (Arts) with 64.
The same situation obtains in the five private universities’ constituent colleges and the 12 universities with Letters of Interim Authority.
This trend shows a huge disconnect between the country’s skills requirements and the production of labour from the universities.
It also demonstrates lack of communication between the government and the universities because it should be expected that the country’s development vision is well aligned with the workings of universities and colleges.
“The huge need for skilled workers in Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering professions and the persistent need to find solutions in key areas of national development such as the Big Four Agenda should largely influence university curricula,” says the report.
A 2016 World Bank Study titled Expanding tertiary education for well-paid jobs, says: “Kenyan post-secondary system must balance the academic and professional qualifications of graduates with the needs of the economy and national priorities, with particular attention paid to graduate output in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
The study says that the trend globally is such that graduates from technical fields find employment more easily than those from the social sciences.
“The large proportion of Kenyan enrolment in post-secondary education concentrates in non-science-related fields and could contribute to a situation in which many graduates are unemployed or underemployed following the completion of their studies,” it says, adding that the trend cuts across most of sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the reasons for the heavy bias in humanities is that science-related courses are more expensive to mount because they require costly learning equipment in laboratories and computer centres in addition to books.
Still, sciences and technology are forever evolving and the colleges have to keep up with the speed of development by continuously upgrading the materials.
An equally critical problem is the severe shortage of competent staff to teach the subjects and perennial underperformance in mathematics and sciences in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.
The report shows that out of the 19 programme clusters on offer in both private and public universities, Business Administration had the highest enrolment with 144,318 students, accounting for 26 per cent of the total student population, followed by Education (Arts) with 108,533 students (20 per cent) and Humanities and Arts with 43,526 (eight per cent).
In contrast, enrolments in Architecture were at one per cent while Manufacturing and other unclassified science clusters were at below one per cent.
Overall, the total enrolment in public and private universities increased from 539,749 in 2015 to 547,316 in 2016.
Public universities registered an enrolment increase of 2,864, while private ones got 10,431 students.
The commission attributes the remarkable difference to the placement of government-sponsored students by the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service into private universities.
The commission recommends that universities should align their programmes to address areas critical to economic development.
Significantly, the commission calls for more learner exposure in formative years to science, technology and mathematics by embedding them judiciously in the Competence-based Curriculum.