ONYANGO-OBBO: Our African universities are up in arms, and we are at sea - Daily Nation

Our African universities are up in arms, and we are at sea

Thursday May 10 2018

 Lecturers strike

Universities Academic Staff Union Secretary-General Constantine Wasonga addresses a press conference in Nakuru on January 19, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenya’s universities are in upheaval. Students and lecturers have been in full protest mode in recent months. They are not alone.

Across the western border in Uganda, it’s the same story. And they have been at it longer in South Africa. In Ethiopia, not too long ago, they were seeking regime change.

Almost everywhere on the continent, where they are sure they will not all be machine-gunned if they took to the streets, Africa’s university students are up in arms. So, what to do? There seems to be agreement that two things are needed.

The first, is “education reform” — broadly meaning make education more engaging (even if it’s very basic stuff like getting rid of the old blackboard and chalk and bringing in whiteboards and markers) and teaching knowledge and skills they can use in the real world (coding, running businesses) or that employers need.


Secondly, throw more money in education by paying lecturers better, building modern libraries and research laboratories, and pleasant dormitories, not the hovels that university hostels have become. Will any of this really change the universities, if the money for it could be found and the will to reform mustered?

It’s true that boredom is killing university and other students.

I studied in a secondary school that had a marching band with fancy uniforms, fancy basketball and tennis courts and football and athletics fields.

When I last visited, the headmaster’s wife had converted part of the fields into her potato garden; the rest was dotted with small anthills with cattle grazing on it, and the basketball and tennis courts had vanished.


Not too long ago, I read of a once-great university in West Africa where students now grow maize in their lawn and roast it over charcoal stoves in their rooms! I visited a once richly endowed university, only to find its massive swimming pool had turned into a grimy frog pond.

So, the first step to deradicalising students could be to fill up the swimming pools and tempt them back to the fields with lively sport.

The rest, I wouldn’t bet my shirt on.

For starters, the success in the expansion of education in Africa over the years, which has produced a large pool of educated people, has undermined universities in a very fundamental way. It has created several knowledge businesses, led by innovative individuals who have just got better at doing the things universities do.


If you are interested in African geopolitical issues, for example, whether in Southern, East, West, the Horn, or North Africa, you probably don’t get any of the really interesting insights from universities but think tanks and civil society groups.

These are increasing, and getting better. In addition, several Western universities have lately revamped their African studies programmes and research and are competing very directly with universities on the continent.

The internet and the global expansion of technology giants have also reshaped the knowledge industry dramatically. Consider something as simple as Google Trends: It will tell you much more quickly more about where Kenya’s anxieties and dark desires lie than the best university researcher will.


By the time the clever professor with his horn-rimmed glasses puts together his 50-page proposal with footnotes to get a research grant, then go off in his straw hat to interview people around the country, Google will long ago have rained on his party.

The problem is, therefore, probably more acute for lecturers. If you watch the History or Discovery channels on DStv, you will have seen all those American and British professors who are busy, not in class teaching, but making documentaries about rain forests, pyramids, urbanisation, and even food, around the world.


No amount of salary increment will provide eternal contentment for a clever professor. The only thing you can do for them from time to time is to actually separate them from their students and send them off to the bush to film trees or something like that to help keep them sane and interested.

No African government will give you money for such pursuits, however. That kind of cash usually comes from rich foundations and generous corporations — which we hardly have.

Which all leads to a terrifying thought: The African universities’ crisis might be a problem we cannot solve! Certainly, it looks that money alone won’t fix what’s broken.

 Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data journalism site Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3