As Kenyans marked ‘Hero’s Day’, few might have recalled former President Daniel Toroitich Moi’s contribution to university education in post-colonial Kenya. Despite immense economic and political challenges, Moi used his presidency to fashion one of Africa’s most important education revolution.
Moi was the son of peasantry and his background helped shape his view of higher education. This motivation was both a product of both personal and contextual realities. The decision to turn down admission to Alliance High School as a student and linger in the heartlands of Baringo and Nandi shielded Moi from the elitism that Kenya’s founding fathers preferred.
Jomo Kenyatta’s legacy on higher education was one built on a colonial template built on creating a tiny crop of privileged elites. For the 15 years he was in power, Mzee Kenyatta was contented with one institution of higher education -- a veritable ivory tower.
Further, his agenda was to limit enrolment and keep funding of higher education to a bare minimum. The mantra of matching the ‘country’s manpower needs’ to admission was commonly used to lock out merited students.
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More than once, the University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor and a close relation to the president, Josephat Karanja pleaded with Kenyatta as the chancellor, to reconsider the funding policy but was ignored. “Deficits hung over our heads like the swords of Damocles,” Dr Karanja cried in desperation in a graduation speech which Kenyatta attended. He was still ignored. Kenyatta’s hands-off approach meant that very little regarding higher education policy was made or implemented.
A controversial plan where actual academic work was run by British staff under an expatriate scheme continued to stand in the way of post graduate studies and for years delayed Kenya’s higher education take-off. Upon Kenyatta’s death, Moi took power and assumed the chancellorship, a position which gave him an insider perspective of higher education in Kenya.
Like a broken record, Dr Karanja was at it again during the 1978 graduation ceremony, lamenting financing, enrolment woes and hinted at the need for a second university. This time Moi took note. But with a different policy.
He would reform both the basic and higher education as a centrepiece of his administration. Although the context was anything but easy, education scholar Kithinji Mwenda observes that the transformation of university education from 1978 was ‘dazzling’. The economy was slowing and there were huge financial hindrances, but Moi’s eye on the higher education ball was unflinching. He asked the University of Nairobi to expand enrolment and innovate programmes. This obligation was demonstrated by the formation of the Ministry of Higher Education in 1978.
Coming from Tugen, at the time a marginalised ethnic minority, Moi sought to craft a higher education agenda that would bridge regional inequality with regard to access, and one that would cater for the country’s disenfranchised mass. In 1979, at the UoN graduation ceremony, he was unrepentant: “In terms of equity and of national development (of higher education), this situation must be regarded as wholly unsatisfactory.” That year, the government’s four-year development plan captured Moi’s vision for an expanded higher education landscape. University of Nairobi’s troubling debts running into millions, which Kenyatta’s government had allowed to pile up, were cleared.
In 1981, Moi formed a presidential working party to think through the details of setting up a second university. It was the first time in independent Kenya that academics were at the vanguard of a major government initiative. Moi’s respect for expertise in education would not be the last. The team was led by Canadian scholar CB Mackay and given a six months period to finalise its work. To this day, very few universities have the luxury of such strong foundations.
The report detailed the capacities, and the kind of programmes to be offered in the new institution-which would be agricultural and scientific in orientation, with cultural and social studies to support the technical bias. There was something else, too. The Mackay report contained Moi’s trojan horse that was to change the education system to the current 8-4-4.
The new system would be criticised as expensive and ambitious, but it fitted within Moi’s ideology of an educational system that sought to collapse the high walls of inequality that rooted in Kenya’s education. In 1983, a technical team led by Prof Douglas Odhiambo led preparation for technical papers for establishing the second university.
On May 30, the Moi University Act was passed as a bill. Moi University would be the symbol of not only addressing inequality in higher education entrenched in coloniality and the Kenyatta regime, but also ushering in a revolution in education system.
Shortly after, 3,000 of heavily wattle tree forested area, some 35 kilometres south of Eldoret were annexed from the Lonrho Company’s land for the establishment of Moi University. Things moved fast. In two months, in what was arguably a forest clearing and in the presence of a handful of people, Moi inaugurated the university. That same year, in October the entire department of forestry was shipped from the University of Nairobi to Eldoret. My own dad was among the first employees of the university. He recalls that students were put up in Kaptagat hotel some 15 miles east of Eldoret and practicals undertaken deep in the undergrowth of Kaptagat forest.
Staff were put up in Eldoret town with mostly Ghanaians, Nigerian and other expatriates accommodated in hotels in the town. Naturally, the late Prof Odhiambo became the first vice chancellor.
Soon after, Kenyatta University became the third university and on August 1985, Egerton became a college of the University of Nairobi. In 1985 the Commission of Higher Education (CHE) was established following a report by the Gachathi report to regulate higher education. However, it found itself more occupied with licencing private higher education.
Moi was keen on each education report formulated. His administration also implemented both the Mackay and the Kamunge reports, the latter which ushered in self-sponsored programmes (SSP). By the he retired in 2002, expatriates had been long replaced, and Kenya had increased expansion from a measly 7,000 to 60,000 students and established six public universities that today comprise the most recognisable institutions of higher learning in Kenya. These remarkable changes were made in the context of a biting IMF/World Bank structural adjustment onslaught and ongoing political pressures. Moi walked the talk.
Still, many critiques claim Moi’s approach was populist and set the stage for expansionism. Others cite the clamp down of university freedoms, poor welfare conditions for university academic staff, and the creation of ‘nyayo professors’ as a downside to his credentials.
However, President Moi’s personal interest in higher education and his commitment to make Kenya’s human resource among the best in Africa cannot be ignored even by his fiercest critics. For higher education in Kenya, Mzee Moi is a hero.
-The writer teaches at Moi University and is currently a British Academy Visiting Fellow, University of Cambridge.