Don missed the point on higher education debate

By Kisemei Mutisya

Over the past month, there have been debates on who to blame over the crises facing higher education. The latest contribution from Prof Michieka Ratemo of the University of Nairobi argues students are to blame for failure to complete their postgraduate studies on time.

From his point of view, departments select and offer the best intellectual guidance only for the students to fail to deliver on time.

Such an argument is not only simplistic but it also fails to appreciate the depth and multiple challenges of higher education in Kenya and University of Nairobi in particular.

Firstly, Chancellor Joe Wanjui, is on public record for expressing concern about tribalism at the university of Nairobi that has seen the dearth of merit.

Students are a reflection of the existing power relations from heads of departments through the VC’s office. Students tend to come from the ethnic groups of those who wield powerful positions in the administrative chain. They are of course patronised by political ethnic barons to extend their regime.

Thus, departments have a tendency of conveniently advertising for academic positions when the preferred candidate has completed his or her Masters or PhDs to perpetuate tribalism and nepotism. Meanwhile, students are recruited for reasons other than merit and, therefore, it is logical that you harvest what you sow. Not much has changed contrary to the image that Michieka wants to paint.

Secondly, a recent study by Prof Nico Cloete, Prof Tracy Bailey and Prof Peter Maasen in Universities and Economic Development in Africa concludes that other than the University of Cape Town, the university surveyed (University of Nairobi included) were primarily undergraduate teaching universities and lacked academic cores that lived up to the expectations their mission statements.

The study points at the explosion of coursework Master’s degrees that do not prepare students for doctoral studies. With regards to University of Nairobi, only one student from a pool of 50 students registers for PhD and the quality of their work is below satisfactory.

Scholars from the University of Nairobi, professors included according to the study, publish only one article in ten years or more. Makerere, in comparison, publishes one article in five years.

A closer look at the crises confronting higher education needs to appreciate the fact that higher education and public universities in general are underfunded, tribalised, and mismanaged.

They hardly engage in generating new knowledge. They recruit staff and post-graduate students in a manner that betrays core values of any institution of higher learning.

The study identifies supplementary teaching and consultancy as some of the factors that contributes to poor research and PhD supervision. Thus, Kenyan universities have difficulty reproducing their own academic staff and academics for other institutions of higher learning.

Prof Michieka ought to have stated how one qualifies to be a professor in public universities.

uproot the rot

Is it through merit, age, ethnic background, political correctness, administrative experience or elite networks? Those who think are professors on merit need to prove their worth by subjecting themselves to peer review and at the same time subject themselves to rigorous academic sift.

While it is true a few professors have lived to the expectations of true scholarship, such scholars are a product of the golden era of higher education and quickly diminishing or diminished.

There is, therefore, a need to get to the bottom of the rot and corruption in higher education. Diminishing resources combined with mounting market and State tyranny, gross mismanagement and corruption account partly for deterioration of teaching research and physical infrastructures, demoralisation of the faculty and students above all social devaluation of the status of academics and other scholarly endeavors.

To blame students for failing to complete their post-graduate studies is to tell half truths and engage in denial. To revamp higher institutions of learning, government and all intellectuals need to rethink honestly and uproot the rot beneath.

The post-colonial state has never appreciated higher education hence the need to focus on incentive structures that encourage knowledge production and rewards hard work and excellence.

Universities are, and have remained, conservative bastions and risk being confined to the archaeology of history unless scholars recapture the lost initiative and demand total transformation and democratisation of institutions of higher learning.

Whereas it is assumed logical and professionally correct to defend our sites of knowledge, it is equally illogical to defend what is intellectually indefensible. What Prof Michieka should be telling Kenyans is how to transform the University of Nairobi with a past of gross suppression of academic freedom to the world-class university it aspires to be.

Writer is a lecturer at United States International University, Department of International Relations.