The ‘lollipop’ degree courses and shame of Kenya university education

An empty university lecture hall following the ongoing lecturers' strike. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Though belated, it was consoling to get news reports that the Commission for University Education (CUE) had finally crawled out of slumber by promising to act on duplication of degree programmes across universities.

Unfortunately, the move seems only to scratch the surface of a more serious problem. If the focus will not be on intra-university duplication -- and the mushrooming of what I term ‘lollipop’ degreeprogrammes, the intent of CUE at tackling duplication of degree programmes will fail miserably. In all bluntness, the duplication of degree programmes has reached pornographic proportions. As a result, we now have a riotously unrestrained roll-out of ‘lollipop’ degree programmes which are undermining the very essence of higher education.

Thin in content  

A lollipop degree, as the name suggests, is alluring, trendy, both sexy and sexualised, thin in content and possessing the barest of ‘nutritive’ (intellectual and possibly employment) dividends. Like an actual lollipop, every young impressionable university student wants to hold one. However, after a brief indulgence, it turns to disappointment. A look at the list of approved programmes in universities on the CUE website reveals extensive intra-university duplication and its most conspicuous spin-off; a generous serving of lollipop degree programmes.

I was recently invited to a social event to speak to high school graduates preparing to join local colleges. Given my vocation, the most natural question was on their respective degree choices. I was taken aback by the popularity of ‘lollipop degrees’ among this lot. I immediately extrapolated this to a national trend.

One girl in particular had locked horns with parents not impressed at her preference. She wanted to study International Relations. Her parents felt she should instead pursue a generalist degree in history or political science. I cautioned her that her parents were most probably right. She got miffed. And several others too, since a good number planned to study such trendy, sexy Bachelors’ programmes as ‘animation’ ‘software engineering’, ‘graphics’, ‘procurement’, ‘international business’, ‘printing’, ‘software development’, ‘events management’, ‘supply and logistics’, ‘public relations’, ‘sound engineering’, ‘imaging’, ‘financial engineering’, ‘social work’, ‘office administration’, among many others. The list is long.

Lollipop degrees have some common attributes. The most obvious is they often take a singular stream from a larger disciplinary area and needlessly stretch it to a four-year programme. They are constituted largely by topical units along narrowed academic streams within pre-existing broader disciplines.

In many cases, attempts at making sexy traditional disciplines have only turned them into lollipop. A common example is affixing ‘computer sciences’ or ‘media/communication’ or ‘engineering’ to even the most unrelated of disciplines.

Some have lengthy names, weighed down with conjunctions and punctuations that expose a superficial interdisciplinary makeup, which only accentuates a conflicted identity. A grandiose, often ‘mouthful’ sparkly title is a common giveaway. For instance, a local university offers a Bachelor of Science in Geomatic Engineering and Geospatial Information System. This is most likely a sexed-up geographical degree.

A lollipop degree is essentially a product of premature specialisation. While these programmes are not fatal to career prospects, they provide specialisation when it is not required. A serious Bachelor’s degree must not specialise. Specialisation begins at graduate level. In some cases, what is offered as a lollipop degree is a legitimate post-graduate programme at a Master’s level.

For instance, a BA degree in Health Records, a BSc degree in Ecotourism, or a Bsc in Postharvest Technology are all too specialised for this level. Ironically, lollipop degrees rarely prepare students for post-graduate study or a proper career in research. In any case, few scholarship opportunities exist for such vocational fields.

Uncritical conveyor belts

If the only reason for the existence of a university programme is pegged purely on vagaries of industry, then it is most likely a lollipop degree. An obvious sign is if the programme’s name is a variation of a name of some specific vocation in the industry, or draws its name from a topic in a textbook. Contrary to assumptions, university education is not reducible to industry. Universities are not designed to be the uncritical conveyor belts of industry trends. While cooperation between the two must be encouraged and pursued, both are guided by different logics.

But lollipop degrees have their benefits too. They are a life-line to careers of scholars who struggle at finding a research and disciplinary identity, and who would otherwise fall in the cracks of a more organised academic structure. They serve more the interests of academics than those of students who pay exorbitantly to join them. The programmes box, and needlessly limit employment options for their graduates.

Can we effectively deal with lollipop degree programmes? Probably yes, but it requires boldness and intellectual honesty.

First, lollipop degrees represent and mask a peculiar kind of ‘Kenyan’ scholarship well entrenched and addressing the problem might be seen as fighting individuals’ careers. A second, possibly fruitful option would be to rehabilitate these programmes into former disciplinary statuses.

This calls for strong and resolute academic leadership presently in danger of extinction. Finally, there is an urgent need for honesty among academics, and a kind of ‘national dialogue’ among key stakeholders on the type of higher education we wish for our children. The proliferation of ‘lollipop degrees’ is an injustice.

- Dr Omanga is the Head, Publishing and Media Studies, Moi University