Six ways Prof Magoha could ‘sanitise’ higher education

Education Cabinet Secretary nominee Prof George Magoha during his vetting by the National Assembly Appointments Committee at County Hall on Thursday. [Boniface Okendo,Standard]

Soon after Prof George Magoha was nominated as Cabinet Secretary for Education, his 91-page CV started doing rounds on social media. As they say, it went viral. Anyone who knew the filth at the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) before Prof Magoha marched there and scrubbed it will consider him the best for the job. Magoha’s research and leadership record as a former University of Nairobi VC are impressive.

Shortly after the announcement of his nomination, Chief Justice David Maraga suggested that Magoha did not need parliamentary vetting since he is suited for the job.

Should MPs endorse his nomination, Prof Magoha’s in-tray will be dominated by the myriad of challenges in the sector. Thus, I wish to bring to the new CS’s attention the most urgent questions afflicting higher education in Kenya.

My modest experience as an academic has brought me to the forbidding reality that higher education is at risk of ‘ceasing to exist’.

Educationist Jonathan Jensen argues that a university ceases to exist when the intellectual project no longer defines its identity, infuses its curriculum, energises its scholars, and inspires its students. To forestall the possibility of collapse in the higher education sector, Prof Magoha will need to address the following issues as soon as possible.

First is the funding crisis. As I write, nearly all universities - public and private - are dreadfully broke. The financial mess in universities is complex. But no one doubts that it is also a result of poor leadership, unplanned embrace of liberalism, poor internal financial structures and years of state underfunding of higher education.

Today, narratives of delayed salaries, lack of remittance of statutory deductions, unpaid bills, cash flow problems no longer make the news. Universities no longer fund research, a core function of universities. That is luxury. This state of affairs cannot be sustained for long. Proposals to adjust students’ fees will not bridge the funding gap and more is needed. Asking universities to “make money” is losing sight of the essence of higher learning. Most universities need a bailout to survive the near future or risk collapse.

On their part, years of unplanned expansion and conversion of universities to employment agencies have resulted in unsustainable wages in campuses, with most universities yoked with a bloated administrative staff, while woefully understaffed in their faculty staff. The new CS must urgently seek funds to organise and facilitate a labour rationalisation in public universities whilst giving considerations to prosecuting previous financial fraud in universities as a deterrence against future malfeasance.

Secondly, the new CS needs to address concerns of university character, duplication and the illusion of university equality.

Universities established before the liberal madness were anchored on character. It was taken for granted that universities will be known for specific niche areas, and that their establishment was guided by filling a niche area and serving well defined scopes.

Not anymore. Universities have since run amok, with programmes displaying an alarming pattern of duplication, both within and across universities.

Lasting legacy

Several university campuses established in the last five or so years serve more the political than the intellectual project. We have more universities than we have need of.

Hard decisions will be required in the face of resistance from politicians. Some campuses cannot justify their existence beyond ethno-nationalist imperatives. Others need to be merged.

To leave a lasting legacy, Prof Magoha must come tough on duplication of programmes both within and across universities.

In Uganda, when the ministry failed to reign in rogue senates that were germinating degree programmes like fungi, the omnipresent Yoweri Museveni intervened. We need not go that length. Also, the illusion of university equality needs addressing. There is need to separate research universities from teaching universities.

The latter will concentrate on undergraduate education, while the former will invest in post-graduate studies and hence, prioritise funding requirements regarding higher education. This will also salvage research. The funding formula proposed by the ministry to fatten STEM programmes is unhelpful.

Rather, a focus on creating a bicameral university structure, and letting this structure inform funding makes sense.

Such a strategy will not only help the government in dealing effectively with whether or not a PhD is required for teaching in higher education, but it will also help organise academic labour.

Thirdly, being a recent victim of the state’s interference with council decisions, the new CS needs to address governance and university autonomy. Indeed, Prof Magoha was the first, and probably the last, competitively hired Vice Chancellor in Kenya. It is timely at this juncture to reflect on the disturbingly poor quality and credibility of higher education leadership, and how this has additionally contributed to the demise of the Kenyan university. Councils are poorly constituted, and heavily politicised.

The appointment of VCs and their deputies is a circus, wreaking havoc to the intellectual project, and making academic leadership less accountable, and reproducing in VCs the proverbial autocratic African chief. Universities cannot excel if they are not autonomous. The new CS should resist the proposals to appoint VCs through the Public Service Commission.

Missing marks

The issue of quality and balancing regulation requires attention. While it is possible the new CS will hear more of ‘missing marks’ and ‘unapproved university programmes’, these are only symptomatic of deeper issues of quality. While too much horizontal expansion denied universities the option to consolidate, over-regulation is also making it difficult for universities to thrive.

Further, the increased corporatisation and subjecting universities to ‘business’ models are unhelpful.

Universities are being turned into commercial centres, and departments ‘cost-centres’ and students now called ‘clients’; in which every ‘management’ meeting is consumed with the language of audits and ‘performance’ of quality.

Here, the response to external intervention is one of compliance rather than debate and argument; with obsession in meeting so-called standards and processes trumping any illusions of academic elegance.

Importantly, the country requires a higher education policy to avoid leaving the sector to the whims of overzealous civil servants. Last but not least, as a practising don, the new CS needs to use the office to restore much needed dignity to the academic profession.

- Dr Omanga is a senior lecturer at Moi University.