After about a month in my new portfolio of the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, I have been both impressed and bewildered by the state of our university education.
While I commend the robust growth of the learning institutions and the immense opportunities they have opened for Kenyans to access higher education, I also think we must jealously guard against lowering quality.
So far, I have met with key players in university education to try to understand it better and develop a way of teaming up with all of them to make my contribution in the development of the sector.
I did so believing that we must run this crucial ministry as partners who should always learn to engage in constant open dialogue and consultation rather than through conflict and talking at one another.
So far, I have consulted with university councils and vice-chancellors of private and public universities, and the leaders of the Universities Academic Staff Union and various government agencies.
These consultations have provided me with a fundamental baseline assessment of the issues affecting the sub-sector.
The talks have led me to conclude that we have our work cut out for us.
Urgent measures are needed to enhance support to our institutions of higher learning and forestall a further slide into tribalism, nepotism, greed, and poor quality of learning and research.
We all agree that improvement and expansion of infrastructure in our universities has been one of the most positive achievements over the past decade.
But the big questions are: What facilities — learning and teaching — have we installed in these buildings?
To what extent have we embraced new methods of teaching, including use of ICT tools, to deliver content?
How do we balance the growing demand for higher education in our country, on the one hand, and sustainability of Kenya’s globally recognised leadership in educational excellence, on the other?
How do we ensure that Kenya’s higher education remains the highway through which we will realise our national development goals of being a middle income and industrialised country by 2030?
Yet it is time we exercised great care with our appetite for acquiring massive buildings at every corner of our towns when we are not remunerating our faculty as well as we should.
CREATING A BALANCE
Our libraries are still stocking outdated books and our students are still using manual catalogues to locate books and journals in this age of electronic catalogues.
I have asked my officers to collect data on some of the areas that have been neglected due to what players have termed “misplaced priorities in spending” in the university system.
We currently have more than 30 public universities and colleges, up from less than 10 a decade ago.
Consequently, the number of students enrolled in the universities has been rising spectacularly.
For example, in 2008/2009, 100,649 were enrolled in public universities.
This number sharply grew to 289,733 last year, representing a 187 per cent increase in only six years.
This phenomenal growth poses challenges.
In most of the universities, the increase in student numbers has not been matched with recruitment of adequate and competent teaching staff.
Many reasons account for this: The rate of completion of studies by students pursuing PhDs currently stands at less than 50 per cent.
This has denied universities a steady pipeline of qualified lecturers who can be absorbed into the market to address the need occasioned by increased student numbers.
Some far-flung colleges and campuses fail to attract competent faculty, forcing some of them to turn to unqualified staff.
This cannot be allowed to continue. I have asked the Commission for University Education to continue its audit of such universities and help us to take remedial action against the affected ones.
WARMING UP TO ICT
More fundamentally, we cannot afford to ignore concerns from the public about our work, especially employers.
I must stress that universities must fully embrace ICT in their teaching and research.
Any university whose graduates are not competently imbibed with ICT skills, irrespective of their degree choices, must think again.
With the growth of the sector, the demand for effective governance of our institutions is imperative.
I have suggested that all governance organs of our institutions employ the spirit of dialogue and skilful conflict resolution mechanisms to iron out internal disputes rather than resorting to conflict or battles in court.
University councils must take charge of the running of the institutions using existing statutes.
Indeed, councils must address the plethora of challenges, including tribalism and nepotism, in our universities, especially when it comes to the recruitment and promotion of senior university management officers.
We must protect the dignity of our esteemed universities, which must operate as truly national institutions.