Why nonsense of ‘my varsity is better than yours’ must end now

The endless ‘my university is better than yours’ debate originated from academic arrogance of scholars in Western Europe and subsequently spread to Sub-Saharan Africa through the colonial higher education system.

The debate that raged then was as to whether the University of London’s constituent colleges in Sub-Saharan Africa — notably Makerere, Ibadan, Legon, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — had the same high quality standards as its British counterparts such as the London School of Economics (LSE), School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and King’s College, London.

Walter Rodney, the late Guyanese historian, political activist and global freedom fighter who went for his doctoral studies at SOAS from University College of the West Indies, had this to say: “If you were from the colonies you had to vindicate yourself, or you would be forced to take some undergraduate courses before being allowed to continue with your postgraduate studies. It did not matter, even if you had a first class degree from a constituent college in the colonies.”

After independence, those colonial constituent colleges became national universities that soon established their own branches. However, in almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, imbalances existed between the main universities and their constituent colleges in terms of quality of faculty and learning resources, such as libraries, lecture theatres, seminar rooms and laboratories. While the main universities had the privilege of picking the best students, enrollment cohorts in branch campuses and newer universities were mostly drawn from average students, a situation that still persists.

Quickly adopted

The situation was muddied further with the enhanced massification of higher education that started off in Makerere in 2000, with its dual track tuition policy which was quickly adopted by Kenyan public universities. According to Prof Goolam Mohamedbhai, the former vice-chancellor of University of Mauritius, by 2005, full-cost fee-paying parallel programmes in public universities had spread to almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

No doubt this might have improved access to higher education, but according to Mohamedbhai, African universities embarked on a recruiting spree with little funds, negatively impacting on the quality of the graduates.

“Most universities in Sub-Saharan Africa are operating with excessive staff-student ratios (as high as 1:100), overcrowded lecture theatres, insufficient laboratory equipment, abandonment of tutorials and practicals and strained library services,” says Mohamedbhai, who is also a former secretary general of the Accra-based Association of African Universities.

Ishmael Munene, an associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, sees Kenya’s university landscape, especially the public sector, as a collection of campuses strewn all over and competing for the same student clientele. Munene says the recent closure of branch campus by the Commission for University Education (CUE) is expected to recalibrate university growth from an array of low-quality, demand-absorbing back to a traditional system of specialised, high quality campuses.

“But for now, branch campuses and university learning sites in Kenya epitomise the worst tendencies of university growth catalysed by social demand and commercialisation in the context of weak regulatory authorities,” says Munene. Munene says that from academic facilities to staff, many branches offer a grim contrast to the main campuses of the flag-staff elite public universities. “In most rural urban centres, branch campuses share buildings with business establishments like pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, brothels and bus terminals,” says Munene in a study, Multi-campus University System in Africa: The Kenyan Experience.

The ongoing debate, whether in Kenya or elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, is not just that ‘my university is better than yours,’ but has degenerated into, “my degree is better than yours.’

Quality deficiencies and other academic weaknesses inherent in African universities have been noticed by the African Union (AU) which recently issued a broad based draft master-plan geared towards establishing comprehensive African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ASG-QA). The draft was prepared in partnership with the Africa-EU Partnership, the University of Barcelona, the Association of African Universities and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

According to the guidelines, most of the challenges in higher education in the continent have arisen from a shift to market and consumer driven degree programmes, usually embedded in the fallacy of thinking of higher education in terms of university degrees.

In this regard, the master-plan urges governments and universities to reflect afresh as to what appertains to higher education. Instead of merely reflecting on how to raise funds from students, some of whom are mediocre but feel that they too can boost their status by having degrees, the guidelines mandate universities to develop clear vision, mission statements, strategic objectives and policies. “In particular, the vision and the mission should be publicly disclosed,” says the guidelines.

The guidelines have also established a roadmap on credit transfer and credit accumulation systems that will apply across the continent. This will no doubt improve student mobility in the continent as it will lay ground rules on how a university can accept academic credits gained from another, which so many countries including Kenya have not adopted even at the local level.

The ASG-QA has borrowed heavily from the Bologna Process that backs comparability of academic standards and quality of higher education qualifications within the European Higher Education Area. Universities will ensure that students admitted to various degrees meet minimum general and programme-specific entry requirements. The universities are also expected to set out clear policies and procedures for recruitment, retention and promotion of staff. The proposed guidelines require each degree’s structure and academic level, credit hours to be in accordance with international norms and standards. “Degree programmes should be delivered by adequate, qualified and competent staff with pedagogical skills,” states the guidelines.

Wake-up call

Ideally, the new thinking by the AU is expected to stop establishment of universities without vision as to what such should accomplish in nation building.

“The current trend of converting middle-level colleges into universities is wrong and should be halted, as the present demand for high quality technicians from technical and vocational institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa is greater than for university graduates,” says Mohamedbhai.

Regardless of how one looks at it, the AU’s attempt to streamline higher education in the continent should be a wake up call for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Kenya in particular. They should stop opening unplanned universities, branch campuses and other academic garages of little value. It is also time for the CUE to start thinking as to whether the bloated menu of more than 2,000 degree programmes has cobwebs that Kenyans can do without, or can be offered at certificate and diploma levels in middle-level colleges.

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