Five reasons we urgently need to redeem higher education

Kenya University Staff Union (KUSU) lecturers demonstrate along Nairobi streets on June 6th,2017. [Photo/Elvis Ogina/Standard]

The just concluded Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) Higher Education institute in Makerere University (Uganda) could not have come at a better time.

Convened by Prof Ibrahim Oanda -- a specialist of higher education and an ex-Kenyatta University don and now the current research and grants Director at Codesria -- and directed by Prof Michael Faborode -- a celebrated former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University (Ife) in Nigeria -- the two-week event provided congenial settings for discussion on the challenges faced by Sub-Saharan universities.

The event deliberately brought together scholars from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South-Africa. The Makerere setting was perfect in every way.

It is here that the strong neo-liberal push by the World Bank drew impetus, a move which popularised financing of higher education where private students gain admission in public universities. This model would be hailed as the best practice for the region.

And just as Makerere played the leading role in the formation of East Africa’s academic and political elite in the 60s, it also played the vanguard role in commercialisation and massification of higher education in East Africa. Further, it was also at Makerere where notable scholar Mahmood Mamdani would pen his landmark book titled ‘Scholars in the Marketplace’, a meticulously written book detailing the extremes of the neo-liberal reforms.

Now directing the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Mamdani is charged with reforming a unit from heavy consulting and monetised ‘research’ to basic research and PhD training. The major drawback of the neoliberal reforms particularly in Kenya was that it narcotised the academe to monetised teaching, and the current shocks in the sector are but the withdrawal symptoms of this artificial high.

Talking points

The Codesria event spoke to the current crises facing our higher education, and made proposals on the main talking points required to redeem it.

First, a courtesy call to the Makerere Vice Chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe revealed the marked governance difference between Kenyan universities and current best practices. Prof Nawangwe was elected to the position by the Makerere Senate last August.

Usually, a search committee is drawn from senate which short-lists of qualified applicants. Those on the short-list are then subjected to a process where senate elects the best. Council is then asked to make the formal appointment. In one of his inspiring lectures at the event, Prof Faborode argued that much of the crises of higher education in the region is located in poor leadership ‘transitions’ and lack of ‘continuity’.

In Kenya, the centralised nature in which the central government appoints DVCs and VCs is bad practice. In actual fact, transitions and appointments of VCs and their deputies in Kenya is a disruptive, ethnic tomfoolery packed with political intrigue.

Meanwhile, the cherished autonomy of the academe is greatly compromised. Prof Faborode recalled the words of former University of Cape Town VC Max Price on why the university remains the best in Africa: “I think one of the strengths is that (our) universities have huge autonomy from government and from outside interference…There is no political interference or political say in the appointment of vice-chancellors. The universities here have the right to set their own salaries, whereas in many other countries salaries are set by the ministry. We have the right to set our own fees, and that’s critical. We have the right to determine our research and curricula agenda.”

The second thing we need to address urgently is financing of higher education. The current financial health of our institutions is worrying. Universities are no longer paying statutory deductions. Salary delays are too common, and most universities have billions of shillings in debts.

An audit of past malfeasance in universities is needed. But we must hold honest conversations on financial viability of some of these institutions. South Africa and Rwanda made the bold step of merging universities that were clearly unsustainable. In Kenya, boldness is in short supply. The truth, as shown by recent universities placement, is that we have institutions that have more staff than students. Worse, at an asymmetrical ratio of four administrators to every lecturer, most universities are inefficiently bloated and saddled with an unsustainable wage bill.

The other issue that came up in the Codesria event was duplication of curricular. While we have multiplied universities beyond our capacity to run them, we have equally duplicated programmes. The net result is that university education has become unnecessarily expensive for the government. In Uganda, the predictably invasive President Yoweri Museveni had to intervene after Makerere went amok in production of ‘lollipop degree’. In regard to lollipops, which I have argued are in large supply in Kenyan universities, we have designed degree programmes that should never be in a university.

Student admissions

Fourth, Prof Ibrahim Oanda lamented the lack of a higher education policy, not just in the region, but more so in Kenya. What does higher education mean to us, and how should it be executed? How should we fund research? In Nigeria, a specific tax fund drawn from oil revenues rescued the sector from near collapse. The over reliance on students’ admission is impractical. The recent fiasco where publicly funded students are admitted into private enterprises is a sure sign that a higher education policy is urgently required.

Finally, the issue of labour unrests and role of unions emerged, as expected. There was general consensus that persistent strikes in African universities were disruptive and damaging to the overall academic agenda. To be more effective, unions like UASU ought to frame their campaigns on improving the broader environment of academics and a programmatic approach to wealth creation over salary demands. As such, UASU must be central to university governance and must be included in discussions on financing research and higher education in general, curricular and institutional reforms in the universities.

The writer is head, Department of Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University.

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