Closing colleges and raising fees will not end university's woes

OPINION |

Graduands during University of Nairobi ( UoN) 52nd graduation ceremony at the university's main campus.[David Njaaga,Standard]

Kenya has been experiencing stalled development in the social, economic and political spheres. Although economic growth has been realised in some years, poverty and lack of basic needs have been the order of the day. Other issues include unemployment and de-industrialisation and lack of enough food. The problems have been occasioned by lack of finances and vision of what the nation needs. These problems facing our country have a bearing on the management and propagation of university education.

The problems contributed to the crisis that necessitated the reforms that were introduced at University of Nairobi last week. The university is supposed to be the space where problems are solved and future visions are charted. The demise of the university means the demise of the nation while its success means progress of the nation.

At independence, the university was a status symbol that we could also do it as an independent state. It was meant to produce high cadre manpower to take over the responsibilities of departing colonialists. The university's Institute for Development Studies was to carry out research that would inform the path of development while the population institute was to help the nation control rapid population growth. The Institute of African studies was to carry out research that would lead to the understanding of African culture in the transformation of the county. The Royal Technical College, as it was known, was to provide technical skills for realising development. With time other departments like law and medicine were also introduced to cater for the demand of these skills by rapidly evolving nation.

The programmes offered at the university were not in tandem with the demands of the rapidly evolving nation. The university was elitist and came to be known as the ivory tower. It signified it was out of touch with the reality of majority of the people. Majority of the populace was eking out its living in the informal economy, agriculture, animal keeping and artisanal fishing and mining. The university embarked on catching up with the developed world infrastructure rather than helping the informal workers, artisanal fisher folk, mining, herding and agriculture evolve. It failed to come up with models and systems that would help the transformation of these workers. Unfortunately, this did not augur well with the majority of the people. Most people could not access the elite education because of the high grades required to join the university. The grade points kept on increasing and leaving a majority of the people out of the education system.

Those left out of the education system continued to join the informal sector which became entrenched in our major cities. Unfortunately, the university had no solution to the expanding and entrenching informal sector which was permeating our everyday practical experiences. The informal sector pervaded all the systems of the economy and politics. The university became an institution of imperial education that would be spread to the majority of its graduates who became unemployable, yet consumers of imperial goods. The university with its elitist modernising project was looking for ways of how to eliminate the informal economy rather than advance it.

The university’s elitist modernist project also failed to cope up with globalisation. The digital revolution was happening outside the university. Innovations such as M-Pesa, Ihub technopolises were taking place among ordinary Kenyans not in university laboratories or science parks. The university failed to create infrastructure to take advantage of the digital revolution that was taking place. It did not build science parks to attract high tech industries or pharmaceuticals that rely heavily on innovations that come from university science laboratories.

The university had failed to capture the industry university nexus that was happening during the digital revolutions. Research topics drawn from industry were limited and far between. Research concentrated on cataloguing problems rather solving them. It failed to develop models and systems that would solve community problems. Its effort to reform involved introduction of corporate ideas in management rather than community ethos. Corporate ideas are for extraction and exploitation and do not allow for creativity like in the case of community programmes. Community programmes rely on creativity and solidarity that are necessary for idea generation and vision creation. By shifting to corporate ideas, the university missed the team work necessary for the digital revolution.

The reforms made last week did not address these fundamentals of the failed university which have to do with the curriculum, the subject matter, the ethos and norms and values of university education. Changes in management did not address the university culture of knowledge generation. Knowledge culture generation requires passion, commitment and foresight. It means provision of basic necessities for survival of the faculty and students so that they can engage in knowledge generation, problem solving and vision charting. It means creating enabling environments for brains to work.

Changing management, closing colleges and raising fees in my view will not address the fundamentals for knowledge generation. The university needs to go back to the basics of problem solving and seeking out allies in industry and community who can help in furthering knowledge generation. Looking inwards will create losers who will not be part of the process of the change that is required. The way the crisis was handled shows that we did not learn from the implementation of structural adjustments which created losers who did not support the reformed programmes. The university needs everyone on board to reintroduce the culture of knowledge generation, problem solving and vision charting. For this to happen, the faculty and students must be happy and stable mentally and physically.

Dr Kinyanjui  is founder, Beyond knowledge horizon and Five colleges women’s study research center Mount Holyoke, MA

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