The closure of several law schools by the Council of Legal Education comes at a time when important questions are being asked on the quality of our university education.
As the universities and regulatory bodies lock horns, students and parents have largely been left to their own devices. We need to have an urgent discussion on the relationship between the university and professional regulatory bodies on one hand and quality assurance of university education on the other.
For starters, we all accept that there are challenges with the quality of university education in this country. Although seen as a critical alternative funding in the context of scarcity in higher education, the uncontrolled massification and commoditisation of education has compromised quality.
Secondly, our obsession and edification of the degree as the irreducible minimum in social, economic, and even political mobility has made a bad state of affairs worse.
It is also worrying that as universities grapple with quality issues, the intrusiveness of professional regulatory bodies in their affairs is raising more questions than answers.
Few can deny that these bodies play a crucial role in upholding and maintaining quality by the mere power they wield through control over the licence to practise.
In addition, constant checking on university curriculums and facilities by professional regulatory bodies is a valuable, often necessary, incentive to institutional development.
In actual fact, the purpose of professional bodies’ monitoring of programmes such as law, engineering, medicine, and education is primarily for the protection of the public by assuring the quality of programmes and the graduates. Still, the “public good” that these bodies represent must equally be interrogated.
For instance, shortly after the suggested closure of Moi University’s School of Law, a prominent lawyer was quoted as saying that one of the reasons for the action was that there were too many students in law schools.
This raises the all-important question of motive. If not checked, professional regulatory bodies could abuse their powers by actions that hide behind quality to define territory and protect employment, status, and income.
Indeed, there is reason to believe that such pronouncements betoken a belief in gate-keeping rather than in markets, and in guilds with established roles and privileges rather than opportunities for other Kenyans.
Also, we are now seeing a situation where accreditation demands are duplicative and inconsistent, discouraging innovation and ignoring an institution’s distinctive goals.
This is especially the case with the engineering regulatory body. Comprising a small clique of engineers from the two oldest universities, the outfit has often hesitated to approve engineering courses that are reflective of current trends in the field of science and technology.
It is hardly surprising that these regulatory bodies have sometimes ended up providing outmoded, ill-informed, self-interested, or unrealistic requests to universities.
As a result, many of them are now confusing their role in assurance of quality and provision of advice with the power to specify how a programme should develop.
It is, therefore, urgent that the relationship between professional regulatory bodies and universities in Kenya be defined. First, while professional regulatory bodies should be substantially involved in university course approvals and review, these bodies must not be overly intrusive, with unreasonable demands that impinge on university autonomy.
Indeed, what is necessary for a degree and what is required for registration as a qualified member of a profession might differ. The two institutions must seek to acknowledge and reconcile the sometimes different logics that define the academe and the industry.
On their part, universities must shape up. While the responsibility of setting and monitoring standards should be a joint exercise between academics in professional schools and professional bodies, academic quality can only be maintained by adherence to the internal quality assurance processes of the universities.
Therefore, professional bodies should acknowledge the internal quality assurance processes put in place by universities.
Dr Omanga is the head of the Publishing and Media Studies Department at Moi University. [email protected]