ODHIAMBO: What do we want with our university education? - Daily Nation

What do we want with our university education?

Sunday May 21 2017

The Fountain of Knowledge at the University of Nairobi. PHOTO :SLATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The Fountain of Knowledge at the University of Nairobi. PHOTO :SLATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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It has become fashionable today in Kenya to speak about university education in a very unflattering language.

In fact, the word “university” is increasingly associated with many wrong things.

Universities are accused of admitting too many students when they don’t have adequate teaching space and accommodation.

Or they are criticised for teaching courses that have no market value.

Another charge is that the examination system in the universities is collapsed and grades are often awarded to undeserving students.


Yet, why is the government willing to fund students to study in private universities when the public ones seem unable to deliver on their mandates?

If public universities have the best manpower because they have existed for much longer and are better supported by the exchequer, how will private universities — which are owned by individuals or non-public organisations — manage with increased numbers of students?

Where will the private universities find teaching staff considering that many rely on lecturers from public universities?

How does the government hope to ensure that the programmes in the private universities are sustained if the anticipated expansion doesn’t lead to increased registration of self-funding learners?


Then, is the government willing to support private universities to invest more in infrastructure, staff development and overall growth?

These questions are urgent because evidence suggests that the government has been spending fewer resources to support public education and has hardly supported private ones except with occasional donation of land.

From nursery up to universities, little money is being invested in putting up classrooms, laboratories, office space for teachers, sports facilities and dormitories.

Lesser amounts are allocated for buying modern teaching and learning equipment.

What is offered for research and development is not worth mentioning.


Many tertiary institutions have absolutely no support for research.

In the universities, the much fancied research divisions offer nothing but occasional conference support and co-ordination of research funding generated by individual lecturers.

So, how does the government expect private universities to address this deficiency since its own Commission for University Education demands that all universities improve their research output?

The fact that public universities have been struggling for years to train and retain qualified teaching staff is an open secret.

Many departments don’t have professors or senior lecturers.


Even where professors are present, a good number aren’t worth the title.

These conditions mean that there is little motivation for an individual to aspire for a higher degree.

Such individuals have no incentive to research, attend conferences or publish.

It costs money to train for a master’s or a PhD. In the recent past, public universities have been less willing to support teaching staff for these higher degrees, with those teaching the Arts and Humanities suffering most.

Yet these are the people who have sustained a number of courses and departments in private universities.


How will they qualify for higher degrees when they have increased teaching load in the private universities because of the increased number of students?

Infrastructure is the biggest problem facing all universities.

There is a school of thought that argues there isn’t need for face-to-face interaction between teachers and students because of technological developments.

Such people think that the internet will soon resolve the perennial problems of lack of classroom space, laboratories or accommodation.

Well, online education has indeed helped thousands.

It may be the future but not the present yet.


We just don’t have adequate supporting human resources and ICT infrastructure to effectively implement non-contact teaching. 

Yet computers are a key tool for research.

When they are connected to the internet, it is easy to access academic journals and research communities.

But even with access to such opportunities, one needs qualified supervision.

What happens where those who are supposed to supervise students don’t have requisite qualifications or experience?

Cases abound of recent PhD graduates immediately tasked with supervising PhD candidates or even teaching PhD class.


We have read in newspapers of MA holders teaching PhD classes.

What all these cases point to is a case where, although training of manpower is key, not much thought is being put into how the training can be done effectively and sustainably.

The management of our universities (private and public) has to be realistic and tell government to spend more resources.

In turn, the government has to ensure that the university administrators are accountable for the public money they receive by ensuring that effective teaching, learning and research remain the core activities.

We need to be clear about what we want to do with our higher education sector today, not tomorrow.

Writer teaches at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]