Only half of university graduates in Kenya are ready for job market, study says

University students in class.  [PHOTOS: FILE/STANDARD]
NAIROBI, KENYA: Only half of the more than 50,000 students who graduate annually are suitable for employment. And of these graduates, more than half are not suited to their career choice, the Inter University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) notes in a survey.

The damning report on the state of higher education in Kenya is corroborated by Ernst and Young, which assesses employability of graduates and the fledgling teaching and research system within the institutions of higher learning.

The IUCEA findings suggest that majority of those who graduate cannot land or will find it challenging to secure long-term employment in their fields of study.

“That is only one part of the problem. The whole university education system should be rethought. We are no longer motivated by the quest for knowledge but rather by a primitive urge to acquire pieces of paper to secure jobs. For the instructors, it is a matter of making as much money from as many universities as possible,” Prof Sam Kubasu, an educationist, told The Standard on Sunday.

But others argue this ‘primitive urge to acquire papers’ has been fuelled by a proliferation of satellite campuses by flagship universities in a bid to make more money off Form Four leavers clueless on career choices and individuals seeking more qualifications.

“This cannot be accepted as truth. It is a chicken and egg situation, where we can’t really blame one thing on another. The only truth in this argument is that generally our higher education has been suffering progressively over the years,” said Prof Kubasu.

WORLD-CLASS RESEARCH

One of the key functions of universities, particularly in poor and developing states, is research. In the US and Britain, there was rising concern on the ability to maintain the standards of existing research universities. Germany had allocated resources to some key institutions, and Japan had funded competitive grants to create centres of excellence solely based on their research capabilities.

Emerging super power China has placed emphasis on creating ‘world-class’ research universities, and India is finally beginning to think about the quality of its mainstream institutions. Similar programmes to enhance standards exist in South Korea, Chile, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Several of Kenya’s traditionally strong universities have over the years sought to improve their quality in research, but several factors have stood on their path.

“Do we have the personnel to do this? Where are our lecturers? Our professors? They are busy shuttling between several campuses to make money. Those specifically wired to research are heading out to other friendlier institutions outside the country,” said Prof Patrick Okanya, a PHD in Biochemistry from the University of Bayreuth, Germany.

The 2013 statistics from the Commission for University Education show the number of professors in Kenya’s seven oldest public universities has risen by a measly just over 10 per cent over the past three years, while student numbers have shot up incredibly by 56 per cent, emphasising the challenge of adequate teaching staff. The number of professors rose marginally from 238 in 2010 to 265 by February 2013, bringing the academic staff numbers to the seven institutions to 5,189; up from approximately 4,800 three years prior.

During the same period, student enrollment shot from 140,000 in 2010 to 218,832 in 2013, further stretching an already stretched workforce resulting in a varying lecturer to student ratio. For instance, the University of Nairobi, with 57,162 students, has an academic staff of 1,610, translating to 1:36 lecturer to student ratio.

The same report indicates five of the seven universities have marginally increased the number of professors, while two have seen the number drop slightly. As at 2013, the University of Nairobi had the highest number of professors at 124, up from 110, followed by Moi University, which had 42, down from 49.

Kenyatta University had 29 full professors in 2010 but recorded 27 in 2013. Maseno saw its number of professors rise from 17 to 22. Jomo Kenyatta, Egerton and Masinde Muliro universities saw the numbers rise from 11 in 2013 to 22, 12 and 15 respectively.

Kenyatta University, which remains Kenya’s biggest university in terms of student enrolment (61,928), had 961 academics, translating to one lecturer for every 65 students. Moi University has a ratio of 1:47, with its 34,477 students and 736 teaching staff. The rest of the student/lecturer ratio in the remaining universities ranges from between 1:31 to 1:39.

Although the number of qualified lecturers has been rising, it lags far behind student growth, forcing many universities to hire under-qualified staff. Another challenge is turf wars by current heads of the research departments in public universities.

“In a lot of these institutions, there is a club mentality. These are department heads that make it so hard for one to get in. In some cases, you might come back home and find yourself more qualified than the department head… it becomes hard to get a job,” Dr Okanya says.

At some point, the university in which he did his doctorate offered him a job, but he chose to stay in Kenya. “But nine out of 10 times, one will return to his former university abroad… systems here rarely work. Most use outdated research material… Our labs use equipment from the cold war era. We can no longer compete with others when it comes to research,” Dr Okanya, a biological chemist, adds.

There is also the question of the crop of students in universities. Many of those called into public universities do not study the course they applied for, nor do they get to pick their second choice. For a majority, the course of study was often their third choice at the time of selection.

After graduating in August 2007 from a local university, Vivian Nzioka only took a month off to re-energise and hit the ground running. She knew securing a job would not be easy, but with the subjects she majored in, she was sure sooner, rather than later, she would eventually land a decent enough job.

She majored in French. Her class, all of which was on a Bachelor’s of Education degree only had 40 students. Numerous colleges and schools, both private and public, were taking up the foreign language as part of their normal class. Logic and mathematics dictated that she at least had a shot at a decent enough job. But her thinking was wrong.

“Six months later, I was still unemployed,” she says.

In the heat of the moment, she refocused and started applying for whatever job that came her way, and ended up, eight months later, as a sales person at a bank. “It wasn’t what I wanted, but at least I paid the bills,” she says.  One year after graduation, a former lecturer called her and offered her a teaching job at his private secondary school. She failed. She says her French had become rusty, and her teaching methods were pretty much non-existent. She stuck to the relatively low paying bank job.

For Ms Nzioka, education was not even among her choice of subjects. She scored a B+ and missed out on all her choices. Would she dream of furthering her education in her line of linguistics?

“Never. Then what do I become after that… I went to college to get the basic entry into any job market - a degree,” she says. This, according to some administrators, contributes to the cycle of non-committed teaching staff in universities. Some university union officials maintain that the current teaching conditions at local universities are not conducive for research for both the teaching staff and the students. “The parallel programme brought with it an overwhelming number of students as well as endless possibilities among staff to make an extra income, the major sacrifice being time.

Faculties have gone commercial, leaving lecturers with little time for research,” Charles Mukhwaya, a former Secretary General of the University Teaching and Non-Teaching Staff Union told The Standard on Sunday.

Though last year’s data from the Commission of Higher Education indicated that the number of professors had slightly increased proposed regulations may make the situation more dire.

Key among the proposals is a requirement that lecturers at least have a master’s degree and all of them will be required to work at particular universities full time.

Under the newly proposed regulations, standards and guidelines, the establishment of campuses and satellite centres has to meet minimum standards specified in terms of structures and location complete with a penalty for non-compliance of Sh5 million or three years’ imprisonment or both.

Under the new law, foreign universities will be required to submit proof of accreditation from their home countries before they are allowed to offer courses in Kenya. For local institutions, the accreditation agency will require core courses to be declared before starting operations, and accreditation will revolve around the core courses.  Public universities will also be subjected to quality assurance overseen by the commission – a role previously prevented by university acts. “Universities are expected not just to expand their capacity but also to provide quality education in an environment conducive to learning,” Mukhwaya, the former Secretary General of the University Teaching and Non-Teaching Staff Union told The Standard on Sunday.

GREAT IRONY

Since Okanya came back to the country four years ago, he had less than two of his colleagues publish research material. In his own campus, a paltry sum is set aside specifically for research purposes. With close to no grants coming in from collaborating universities and a reduced Government kitty, things are not rosy, say university staff.

But therein lies the great irony. When the universities were allowed to come up with programmes to make their own money, the Government partly reduced the amount of budgetary allocation to these institutions, which were ideally making more money from the self-sponsored students’ programmes.

“There is no follow-up on how these additional funds are spent. There is a lot of wastage and corruption. Extra money is not directed to more productive research based programmes. There is almost zero financial management systems,” Mukhwaya told The Standard on Sunday. “A lot needs to be done.” As a result we are slowly falling behind in terms of global recognition and ranking.

The 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking has, unsurprisingly no Kenyan university on the top 100 list. No African university makes the list topped by Harvard University.

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2014 employ the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey to provide the definitive list of the top 100 most powerful global university brands.

The reputation league table is based on nothing more than subjective judgment - but it is the considered expert judgment of senior, published academics - the people best placed to know the most about excellence in our universities.

The Kenyan higher education system has not however always been brushed aside for its poor quality. At one time, Kenyan universities stood shoulder to shoulder with global centres in terms of research and publication. As of 2013, the Commission for University Education says there are 48 universities in Kenya with more than 200,000 students.

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IUCEA Ernst and Young employment