Higher education: Is STEM the way to go?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) drive modern economies. We need to channel more resources towards STEM to advance Africa’s development. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

NAIROBI: The recent conference hosted by the Commission for University Education (CUE) was overshadowed by TICAD VI.

CUE’s meeting was convened to deliberate on higher education in Kenya, which has reached a turning point in terms of student numbers, financing and, more fundamentally, the returns on investment.

The conference’s main theme, ‘Advancing Africa’s Development through Science, Technology and Innovation’, was timely. At a pre-conference, whose theme was ‘Status of higher education in Kenya’, a number of issues confronting the country were highlighted. Among them was the numbers.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that in the last 10 years, the number of university students has grown to about 500,000. One of Mwai Kibaki’s final acts as president was to charter and recharter more universities. There could be another around of this.

The thinking is that we should open more opportunities in higher education, which would have a spillover effect on the economy.

My concern is that the expansion is lopsided. While arguments have been advanced for humanities; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are attracting fewer students.

That is why the CUE theme was timely. Africa needs STEM to develop. Through STEM, we solve societal problems, while also making money. Most innovations are built on STEM. With most of our students studying humanities, we are spawning fewer innovations.

No wonder comedians are the heroes in this country. I will not stop asking why Science Congress winners in high school never go to State House, while drama and music festival winners dine with the President – and despite our Deputy President being a scientist. He should flaunt his scientific credentials more often.

The big issues

It is, therefore, surprising that as CUE was hosting its conference, the Government was announcing it is sponsoring 10,000 students to study in private universities. It would have made lots of economic sense to add a rider to this sponsorship: they must study STEM.

The power of STEM has not been fully appreciated in Africa. Maybe because leaders rarely have a STEM background. How many African presidents studied STEM? How many of our MPs, senators and MCAs studied STEM? And how many principals in high school are scientists? Can the Teachers Service Commission ensure that either the principal or deputy is a scientist?

Even our Constitution kept away from STEM. The word advocate appears 14 times in this law, but scientist and mathematics do not feature. Engineering appears once.

The second big issue in higher education is a lack of diversity. It is common to find a student going through one university for all three degrees to PhD level, and then being recruited to teach there.

Add the fact that universities have been ‘rokolised’, and the lack of diversity becomes a big threat to innovation. Things become worse when TSC sends teachers to their villages.

The diversity should include faculty. CUE should demand that universities reserve 10 per cent of their establishments for visiting faculty from other regions of the world.

What greater intellectual justice can we give our students than exposing them to diversity of thought?

Trade data

You will quickly hear that we are denying locals their jobs. Yet, by supporting diversity of thought, we shall create more jobs in the future. Where would Silicon Valley be without diversity, without welcoming all races and nationalities?

Creating a few low-value jobs, particularly in administration, and building a few hostels is not what universities are for.

How many multinational corporations have we spawned in our universities? How many patents do we register? What percentage of our graduates get jobs within a year?

Look at trade data for most African countries. The trade deficit results from importation of machinery and advanced technology. Unlike the Chinese, who easily reverse engineer products and make them their own, we are more satisfied showing off the most expensive gadget we have bought. How can we not make planes or cars, yet technologies to make them have been there for more than a 100 years? When President Moi tried to make a car, we laughed ....

Advancing Africa’s development demands that we shift our attention to STEM; from redesigning our curriculum to financing higher education, and research and development.

Our thinking must change, too. One wishes the two-thirds gender rule would also apply to intellectual backgrounds in public organisations.

As long as STEM is not one of our priorities, we shall remain the dumping ground for tired technologies and ideas. China, India, South Korea and Japan focused on STEM. Look at where their economies are. Why can’t we do the same?

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]