Universities must brace themselves for major reforms

Saturday May 25 2019

Kenya’s universities face a serious crisis and require painful reforms to survive. Issues of funding, quality, management and manpower deficit are threatening to cripple these institutions. It is momentous that the Commission for University Education (CUE) has been given up to the end of July to conduct an audit and turn in a report to guide reforms in the sector.


If the tough-talking Cabinet secretary for Education George Magoha pursues this line, then we should prepare for painful tectonic transformations that will redefine the higher education landscape for the better.

Cosmetic and platonic changes will not help. The changes should be far-reaching and define the sector for the 21st Century while aligning it to the Competence-Based Curriculum (CBC) that has been rolled out in lower primary school.

Arguably, the university education sector has gone through enormous vicissitudes over the years. The past three decades have seen a major expansion of university education, growing from one public university in 1984 to 31 public universities and six constituent colleges in 2019. An additional 36 private universities have been licensed.

It is the era of uncontrolled expansion, between 2009 to 2016, that created the most serious challenges. With massive expansion, individual universities went ballistic in admitting privately sponsored students. To enhance their competitiveness, they also opened outposts all over the country, some across the borders.


This market-competitive model stimulated useless competition across universities. What mattered most in this rat-race was the numbers of students admitted. There are indications that we drastically compromised quality. There is also evidence that not much of the money generated was ploughed back into the development of infrastructure to support learning. But universities are not to blame entirely for everything that went wrong. The thinking within government was that in the era of decreased State funding for universities, the policy would help generate revenue for public universities through privately sponsored students.


This model introduced what I want to call academic capitalism. Universities moved to prioritise marketisation of their programmes and services. The results were disastrous. Public universities found themselves, unfortunately, adopting private values that are not in line with the age-old principles that govern knowledge generation, dissemination and social responsibility.

Repercussions of commercialisation of education include the obvious quality problems. This has made it possible for issuance of fake degrees. The opening of substandard outposts and unethical practices has cheapened university education. If the CS is serious then, these are some of the issues to address. Universities did not anticipate and mitigate against possible risks. That is why they could not absorb the shocker that came in 2016, when, due to tight administration of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations, the number of university qualifiers halved. The pool of qualified students who would join universities as privately sponsored students dried up. Since then, all the students who score C+, which is the minimum entry qualification to university, are sponsored by the government. There is no surplus to join universities as privately sponsored students.

So with limited resources from the exchequer, how can public universities finance their programmes? First, one expects the report to provide a guideline on a viable model of funding universities. The report should present aggressive proposals on how to restructure these institutions. This is where the battles will be fought.

Are we ready to merge universities? Can we brand all our universities bearing in mind their niche areas? Are we prepared to engage one another on the number of universities that the government can fund bearing in mind our population? This has happened elsewhere. South Africa presents a good example of how radical changes have created a predictable higher education terrain. It went through a painful process of reducing the number of universities. Pundits argue that we overshot the banks on the number of universities we ought to have.


They say 31 public universities and six public constituent colleges are too many for Kenya. South Africa, with a population of 56 million, has 23 universities. Rwanda, with a population of 12 million people, has one public university. It is time for sober reflection. The report should give guidance on this process and not serve immediate political expedience.

To be helpful, universities must address the link between academia and industry. Why do we continue to witness skills gap? How do we create synergy between universities and technical and vocational institutions? How do we create research universities? Can we categorise universities so that some remain teaching universities, for that is what they are, while others become research institutions? And how do we develop a research culture?

The report should also give serious thinking on management structures of our universities. Do we need all these management levels within these institutions and how do they impact on the meagre resources available? It is imperative to focus our resources on key strategic areas to eliminate duplication in management. The useless discussion on the role of pure sciences and social sciences play in development should be exhaustively handled and brought to an end. We have heard extremely uneducated statements on this matter showing that ignorance pervades our appreciation of the value of knowledge.


Research has also shown that half of our graduates are unprepared for the job market. It has also been revealed that universities continue to fragment programmes into small units that do not give the students enough exposure for what they need to know as undergraduate students. We now have Bachelor of Science students who study a single subject for four years!

But a more serious matter that needs to be addressed is the shortage of qualified scholars who hold PhD degrees. In some programmes in our universities, master’s degree holders are teaching master's students! There are more master’s degree holders teaching in our universities than doctoral degree holders. And there are many PhD holders who cannot write a correct paragraph in their area of specialisation. A more fundamental challenge is that those who supervise postgraduate students have no pedagogical training to do so and universities hardly invest in training supervisors. Some universities simply rely on part-time lecturers who are ill-equipped to teach. There is need for evolution of a framework for resource sharing especially in programmes where virtually all our universities have shortage of staff and infrastructure.


Equally important, one expects CUE to worry about access and cost of higher education and argue for speedy establishment of the National Open University of Kenya (NOUK). It is a fact that there has been more talk on establishment of this university than action. The idea has been with us for over 20 years ago. Tanzanians bought into the idea and established the Open University of Tanzania (OUT) in 1994. OUT became the first university in the whole of East Africa to fully offer educational programmes on open and distance learning mode. Currently, the Open University of Tanzania has more students than those in all the other universities in Tanzania! We also need to learn from the experiences of South Africa. The University of South Africa (UNISA) is defined as a mega university with over 480,000 students. UNISA has more students than all students in Kenyan universities put together.

Established in 1918, it is South Africa’s most productive institution which accounts for 12.8 per cent of all degrees conferred by the country’s 23 public universities.

In universities’ ranking of the last 10 years, UNISA has often been rated among the top 10 best universities in Africa. Either way one looks at the university sector, there is need to answer tough questions, innovate and reform.

Prof Kabaji is a specialist in Literary Communication and consultant on strategic management [email protected]