In 2007, I travelled to South Korea and Malaysia to learn their secrets of rapid development that had elevated them to the status of Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) in just three or so decades.
The idea of replicating the same in Kenya was met with resistance, destroyed and buried.
Both nations had established technology parks supported by universities specialising in applied sciences. In my assessment, we just needed to implement their development blueprint.
At meetings with government officials, many promises were made, leading us to anticipate quick action in the implementation of the “Tigers” model.
The tigers agreed to assist to develop institutions of higher learning that were responsive to industry needs.
Korea promised to build an advanced institute for science and technology that was to be modelled around the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST).
Malaysia too wanted to reciprocate our hospitality, which we had accorded them when they came for a benchmarking tour in the early part of 1970’s. They had borrowed Nairobi’s Mass Transport blueprint at the time.
As soon as I arrived home, I briefed my Minister then, Hon. Mutahi Kagwe. He instructed that we prepare a Cabinet Memorandum to transfer the Mbagathi-based Kenya College of Communications Technology from the regulator, Communication Commission of Kenya to Government.
We however wanted the institution to be funded privately through industry and university collaboration model in order to avoid the usual inadequate government funding. We named the College Multimedia University as we intended to collaborate with both Malaysia and KAIST.
Although the Cabinet approved the change, the Office of the Attorney General could not agree to a new model of university that did not exist in the country.
Our desire was not to destroy the original intentions of the college that were largely practical training in telecommunications. We wanted to develop an applied sciences research institution to address the problems of a developing country.
In 2008, we created a new Board Chaired by Hon. Kagwe as we tussled with the AG to consider approving a new model of university. We raised some money to start the Madaraka computer assembly plant in line with our desired mission of applied sciences.
Several of Madaraka PCs were sold to government before the institution was transferred to the Ministry of Education, which is assumed to be the only ministry capable of sponsoring a university.
When the institution went to a different ministry, we knew we had lost its control since the mandarins in the ministry couldn’t possibly be expected to appreciate the specialised mission of the university that we had in mind.
We, therefore, chose to seek partnership with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), which was closest to our mission.
We extended the production of Madaraka to JKUAT. As the Ministry of Education brought in their structures, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies lost control of the institution and the dream began to dissipate.
When KAIST tried to bring in their applied programs, this too did not align with our rigid approach to university education.
I made several attempts to re-articulate the original idea but frequent staff turnover at the top, ethnic politics, bureaucratic red tape, and deliberate stonewalling led to a complete destruction of an idea that we still need to make our youth employable and independent.
Last month as I drove from Ongata Rongai and saw Multimedia University, I felt nostalgic about the institution and decided that I pay one more visit. At the main gate a youngish watchman asked me who I wanted to see at the University. I replied, nobody except that I felt nostalgic about this place. Just wanted to drive in and out. He politely responded that they were not allowed to open for people who did not have any business with the university.
In its Wikipedia page, the institution’s original idea is absent. It reads:
MMU was founded in 1948 when the institution was founded as Central Training School to serve as East African Post Training School before changing to Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC). This was after the collapse of the East African community in 1977. In 1992, the college was upgraded to Kenya College of Communications Technology under KPTC and became a subsidiary of Telkom Kenya (TKL) after KPTC split into Postal Corporation of Kenya, Telkom Kenya Ltd and Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK). The college became a subsidiary of CCK after the privatisation of TKL in 2006. In 2008, it was upgraded to Multimedia University College of Kenya as a constituent college of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. MMU is going to be involved in the development Konza Technology City. MMU Kenya has adopted a similar strategy as MMU Malaysia in which MMU Kenya is to accelerate the development of Kenya's Information and Knowledge sectors. This is one of the pillars meant to transform Kenya to a middle-income economy under Vision 2030.
Even as KAIST gets ready to put up a Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology campus at Konza, MMU may never be what it was envisaged to be under government funding. The idea is dead for now. It serves as a lesson why we must re-think higher education, its funding, regulation, programs and its future.
There are multiple ways of funding higher education and in most cases not all are effective. In some countries, they use a mixture of models like cost sharing, host-proprietor-university-user funding where all stakeholders contribute, contextualised formula-funding, largely based on consideration of individual cases and university industry collaboration model – the model we desired for MMU.
We were sure that this model would work since there was value for industry and that the future of learning was going to be mostly multimedia content in virtually every sector hence the reason why we named the institution MMU.
The future of learning will mostly be online using multimedia tools especially now when the country is in the process of implementing Competence Based Curriculum. It is never too late to reconsider a good idea that may change the future of our country.
The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito