A recent article in the Sunday Nation by Prof Egara Kabaji only scratched the surface of an extremely important subject: the huge perils facing university education in Kenya (Universities must brace themselves for major reforms, May 26). He called attention to “the pain” the country must undergo to ensure our public universities survive.
I should probably declare upfront that the task of truly transforming ours into a meaningful educational outcome in the long run will not be an easy one and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The sketching out of a new curriculum — much as some think it is the panacea — is only but one aspect in what I know to be a rather complex and politics-ridden policy landscape. Besides, there are as many competing national priorities that can easily torpedo the firmness of purpose. True, lots of “patch work” is being tried out even in the name of the Competence-Based Curriculum (CBC), but the sceptics also require to be given a hearing if a modicum of the required “deep dive” is to be achieved.
Whereas Kabaji’s diagnosis could be correct on a number of issues, I find some of his assertions to be un-nuanced. Take for instance, the contestable belief that a master’s degree holder cannot teach or mentor others pursuing the same degree! This is one of the nearly half a dozen myths that have been the bane of Kenya’s academia for far too long. Such a view belongs to the simplistic and basic linearity of approach that has no room for “exceptionalism”. Let me quickly illustrate: When Dr Josephat Karanja became vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 1970, he had hardly been a scholar. Of course, you could say that Dr Karanja was powerfully-networked and could by-pass practically all other senior academics, but what cannot be denied of him was his signature stewardship at a most critical time in the national history.
As many do know, the indomitable Ngugi wa Thiong’o became professor and head of department without the over-glorified postgraduate degrees. For the avoidance of doubt, Ali Mazrui was appointed professor and Head of Department at Makerere not so long after his PhD and don’t you forget, he had previously barely passed high school exams. Mazrui’s legacy remains intact in the public domain. Much more recently, Prof Calestous Juma did not find much homage in our Kenyan academy. Fact is, out of Kenya, Prof Juma scaled the highest possible in global academia.
RIGOUR & VERACITY
Let me just state categorically that some of the most influential teachers, prolific writers and mentors that Kenya and Africa has known over the years were not necessarily PhDs. Okot p’Bitek, John Ruganda, David Rubadiri, Austin Bukenya, Taban Lo Liyong; Francis Imbuga, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Carey Francis, Jim Park, R.A Durrant (the latter three of the Maseno years) – to name only a handful — were at their best without any deceptive titling.
In my subsequent dalliance with legal studies, I established that some of the real gurus had no more than the basic degrees. Smith and Hogan or Clarkson and Keating, for instance, remain world authorities, and there are as many top-notch American law professors who are not titled in our sense of the word! It is, therefore, clear to me that in the earlier years, most serious educational systems equally prized exceptionalism and recognised them as such. Into independence, we simply went berserk with degrees and titles — including fake ones that probably now outstrip the genuine others.
Yet, readers should not misunderstand me: higher degrees are probably that important. What I am patently against is the tendency to fetish and overrate academic qualifications.
It leads to my most vital point: globally, education is grappling with some of the most complex topics and realities. Without rigour and veracity — whatever your title — you will certainly not be able to cope with these realities. Consider the roaring emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the rise and rise of electronic everything. Consider how in the face of these mind boggling advances, our educational modes remain pretty much traditional. What do we do with children who are exceptionally talented yet completely bored or disinterested in these traditional tutoring and teaching modes? What really, is the future of age-old theses and dissertations used in conferring higher degrees?
At a recent international colloquium, Prof Gregg Mitman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) surprised all of us with the revelation that the lecture and the long-drawn reading lists that orthodox professors traditionally give out are no longer tenable. Reason? Students are far too busy with their smart phones and “Mr Google” to comb through voluminous readings or even to try accessing some innocuous “peer reviewed” journal published “God Knows where”. The report that India’s higher education is contemplating doing away with the published papers requirement before a PhD is conferred is as revealing. What has dawned is that it has only bred the era of completely useless “predatory journals” that even India is now ashamed of. Elsewhere, even the MBA is being interrogated. As Tamsin Oxford has ascribed in a Southern African context, “…Whereas the MBA was for long the crowbar that a person needs to pry open the high level career opportunities….the notion that it helps you understand everything about business is false.”
A key issue in Kenya clearly remains the contentious notion that the country must put more emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) and not the humanities. Without seeking to romanticise any subject area, it is tempting to call for dispassionate indulgence before we create irreversible damages to society.
In short, this could be the time to begin theorising alternative, creative and super-modern ways of doing business; including productions of knowledge that can confront these confoundingly changed times.
Dr Outa, a Literary-cum-legal scholar, is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Kenya