To beat the best, we must separate research and teaching universities

Universities have recently received bad press. The Commission for University Education (CUE), an outfit that had been dormant for years, arose from slumber and released a report that 'suddenly' found out that a number of university courses were either unapproved or unaccredited.

In their haste, a number of media houses published what they thought were a scoop - that several programmes in our universities were 'fake'. Most of what was published in the press comprised incomplete facts. Many journalists did not bother to ask the differences between approval and accreditation. Also, many more failed to notice that CUE came into being only four years ago and that universities have been offering degrees for decades.

Still, what this incident fore-grounded was the urgent need for a programmatic perspective on higher education, rather than the knee jerk, superficial, headline-seeking stunt that is now becoming common in the sector.

Before CUE was shaken from its snooze, most likely by the Education CS, university education in Kenya was reeling and most universities were tottering to near collapse as a result of poor leadership. A number lost sight of the meaning of higher education and went berserk, spawning campuses in every imaginable outpost, even outdoing some notable supermarket chains.

Meanwhile, as the greed for more and more money displaced good sense and good manners, universities created courses that were at best topics in mainstream courses and which hardly measured to the expected rigors of a university programme. At that time, as CUE tugged tightly on its blankets, well-placed politicians coerced university bosses to create campuses in their political turfs. Power, blunt sycophancy and political tribalism were conflated with the supposed higher ideals of university education. This mix soiled university education. By the time CUE rubbed sleep off its eyes, the rain had long beat us, and we were all drenched wet, very wet.

We have to be honest. University education in Kenya is in her most critical phase. Hard choices need to be made. I have on occasion witnessed gleeful faces in academic corridors when global university rankings are released. Often, universities glean the rankings by shrinking the scope down to a region, thus proclaiming they are among the best in 'Africa' or in 'Kenya.' I have argued before that this recalls the proverbial pygmy who draws comparisons with fellow pygmies to announce claims of height advantage, thus blinding himself to his own shortness. The reality is we are not doing well on the core business that defines a university: research.

The contribution of the Sub-Saharan Africa region, where Kenya belongs, to the global research output is a mere 0.4 per cent. This region, one of the most densely populated globally with about one billion inhabitants, translating to 13 per cent of the global population, produces less than one per cent of world's total research output.

The entire continent, inclusive of South Africa and North Africa, produces the same number of published papers as tiny Netherlands in a year. According to the Thomson Reuter's index, research in Africa is dominated by three nations: Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. In 10 years Egypt produces nearly 30,000 papers which is about three times the total for Tunisia, its neighbour. In West Africa, Nigeria's total is over 10,000, compared to roughly 6,500 for Kenya, the leading research economy in East Africa. South Africa dominates the continents' research output producing about 50,000 papers in the same period.

These data should stir us up as a country. The kind of model for higher education that we have adopted in the past decade is hurting our research capacity. We have given premium to quantity rather than quality. Reports that some of our best and oldest universities are struggling to get state funding is evidence that a programmatic approach to higher education in Kenya is urgently needed. We must design an approach that privileges research. Drawing from my observations, I suggest a few measures that CUE and the government can adopt to make Kenyan universities compete globally.

First, now that CUE is fully awake, it must seek to establish a dichotomy of universities as either research or teaching universities. This has to be deliberate and strategic. A research university will be expected to have its staff hired and maintained primarily on their commitment to engage in full time research with minimal teaching. These universities will be expected to run doctoral programmes and graduate schools where there is a strong focus on innovation and research. In my view, the older universities, sometimes called the big five (Nairobi, Moi, Kenyatta, Jomo Kenyatta and Egerton) should fulfill this role. These universities are already assuming this role by the sheer number of professors and PhDs in their ranks and the type of specialised research done in these institutions. They have the most experienced professors who have helped maintain standards over the years despite tough working conditions.

The rest of the universities must be categorised as teaching universities, where graduate programmes are only up to a Master's level, with emphasis on teaching undergraduate programmes. While some might argue that this creates some kind of elitism or hierarchies in our universities, where efforts should instead be towards equity, the reality is that we are far from egalitarian.

For instance, the cut off cluster points suggest that in cases where different universities offer the same programme, the so-called big five often have a higher cut off mark.

Establishing research universities has other multiplier effects. For example, a relationship occurs between social economic well being and research output. Investing in research universities is investing in the general well being of the country. Also, research intensive universities, unlike teaching universities, are natural national assets and tend to be more diverse. Establishing them will help stop the gradual and systematic ethnicisation of some of our best universities. More important, creation of research universities will 'kill' the harmful habit of careerism in the Kenyan academe, where academics move from big to smaller universities in search of bigger, but usually questionable, academic titles.

Second, before CUE slides to another round of sleep, it must work with the Education ministry to deliberately create centres of excellence around the established research universities. A lesson from Germany might be helpful here. In 2007, after realising that its universities were losing ground and visibility to universities in the UK and the US, the German government dropped its long held egalitarian model and launched the now famous German excellence initiative. Selected universities were strengthened and heavily funded to raise their international visibility. Emphasis was placed on graduate programmes where 40 selected graduate schools receive one million Euros every year. Today, these universities now occupy the top 250 in the world. Four of the universities in the excellence initiative programme are now among Europe's top 10 universities.

Kenya can borrow from this, where each 'research university' is encouraged to pursue traditional niche areas through graduate programmes and research. More importantly, funding decisions must now shift to other considerations, such as the extent to which a university is categorized as either a research or a teaching university.

The writer is Head of Department, Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University ([email protected])