By Wachira Kigotho
The debate about whether local universities are offering irrelevant degrees will continue taking centre-stage so long as there are no guidelines on marketing of higher education amid shrinking Government support of public universities.
On their part, universities contend there are no irrelevant degrees in their menu of courses while Higher Education Minister William Ruto alleges some academic programmes are of no value to the countryâs development goals.
But the issue is that in the last two decades, the university scene has undergone significant changes, ushering sharp focus of competition between courses. Internally competition is also rife between high and low-earning departments and faculties.
Externally, competition for students is intense among public and private universities. According to educationists, the emerging academic capitalism has reduced some degrees and diplomas to mere marketable commodities. "The commercial dimension of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa is determining the very nature and conditions in which courses are taught," says Unesco in its recent World Social Science Report 2010.
Subsequently, the underlying dynamics of market forces have made people to hold divergent viewpoints on what higher education should be. For instance, universities top management and academic staff have no qualms about introduction of courses that are traditionally offered by junior colleges and polytechnics. Some of those certificate and diploma courses have been upgraded into degrees without change in content.
For instance, programmes in tourism, leisure and hospitality, secretarial studies, information technology, entrepreneurship and small business management, which in most countries are taught in junior colleges, have been created.
Time is now to strengthen vocational colleges instead of competing with universities for students. "In some cases, boundaries have been blurred between offerings of elite public universities and vocational colleges," says Dr Carol Bidemi, the foremost leading expert on marketisation of higher education in East African universities.
Even as the Government fault universities for offering what they consider to be irrelevant courses, there is need to understand that public universities are struggling from decades of brain drain and neglect by the Government. Consequently intrusion of business practices into higher education is radically changing institutional behaviour of the universities, not only in Kenya but also across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Currently, there are about 145,000 university students enrolled in local public universities of which 35 per cent are private students paying full-cost of their education. Most of those students are enrolled in arts-based degrees not necessarily because they wanted to study those courses but because they had poor grades in sciences and maths at secondary level.