The late 1990s’ commercialisation of university education in Kenya was a natural reaction for many universities to a context that demanded increased funding of higher education.
As government support to higher education declined and perceptions of the university degree as the surest ticket to social and economic privilege gained merit, universities in Kenya made money.
As education scholar Ishmael Munene has argued, while some universities were able to plough back the newfound fortunes into infrastructure and institutional development, others thought the windfall would last and ended up making decisions that are now hurting them.
However, while it is possible for universities to recover and overcome some of the poor decisions made in the past, the greater tragedy is whether universities are able to reclaim the lost core disciplines that changed content and form to appeal to the market.
The transformation of the university into a market place meant several things.
One, the schools and departments that attracted the highest number of students became the most “prestigious” and naturally paid their lecturers higher perks than other schools.
Secondly, schools with multiple degree programmes attracted the most students and therefore made more money.
These two logics have largely undermined the meaning of a university education in Kenya.
The natural outworking of this mercantile thinking was that universities were churning out degree programmes, not out of their industry relevance, but with an eye on the prospective client — students.
In most universities, the stampede to create new “marketable” courses went unchecked and as a result, dozens of such courses that are barely relevant to the social and economic context were offered to the public.
It is difficult to see how this process can be reversed.
Secondly, and perhaps most tragic, is the slow death of the core disciplines.
The commercialisation of the academe meant that so-called “non-professional courses” such as sociology, linguistics, literature, geography, mathematics, chemistry, physics, religious studies, and history were in danger of losing students.
Universities made a bad situation worse when they began to make both cosmetic and fundamental changes to these key disciplines.
For instance, mathematics courses were suffixed with something like computer studies or IT.
Rather than adopt media studies, a more research-centred programme, commercialisation drove universities to wrest journalism and mass communication courses from middle level colleges.
A 12-month course was stretched to a four-year programme.
Engineering, which could easily fit within three or four specialisations despite the vast technological shifts in the world, multiplied 10 times over in tandem with the appetite for anything engineering.
Linguistics and literature, two disciplines that are important in defining the character of a university, found themselves pushed into a marriage of convenience with vocational courses with a journalistic orientation.
The implication of this is that we are in danger of not having a linguist coming out of the university in the next decades.
The content of programmes such as history, philosophy, anthropology, or economics, that make the foundation of the humanities and social sciences, are now forced into excessive inter-discipline that is dismantling the academe.
Serious universities do not vocationalise the core disciplines.
This is because such mercantile logic also hurts research.
A good grounding in the core disciplines prepares one better for graduate studies.
It is difficult to see how some of the programmes can transition students into further studies.
Their low level make-up and vocational orientation do not bode well for the meaningful research that is necessary for post-graduate work.
Our universities are thus faced with not just a structural dilemma, but an ethical one as well.
The ethical dilemma is that the courses that we have “professionalised” to attract more students and more earnings are not delivering to parents and students the aspirations implicit in these programmes.