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Covid-19 reveals varsities identity crisis headache

By Duncan Omanga | May 9th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

JKUAT Vice Chancellor Victoria Ngumi looks at a prototype ventilator invented by the institution’s students. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Covid-19 has shown that our universities are in an identity crisis. There was excitement when Kenyatta University developed a rudimentary ventilator machine.

While the innovation deserves accolades, I was concerned when the discussions shifted to mass production.

Vice Chancellor Paul Wainaina proclaimed that the university was able to produce 50 ventilators weekly. This triggered a stampede. In the wrong direction. Technical University of Mombasa (TUM) soon announced the making of another ventilator, and aerosol sanitisers. No problem, but the shocker hit home when she was quoted saying, “We are now doing mass production of aerosol sprinkling sanitisers”.

Then Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology announced it was producing 480 litres of affordable sanitisers and soap daily. Murang’a University of Technology declared it was rolling out 10,000 pieces of re-usable face masks while Mount Kenya said it was manufacturing and distributing hand sanitisers.

The social responsiveness of our universities is worth celebrating, but the scramble in producing soaps, sanitisers and ventilators is not. Universities are foisting on themselves tasks they are ill-equipped for. The primary role of universities is research and teaching. Not production.

Covid 19 Time Series


Mass production

These events evidence an unhelpful trend where universities seem to be ‘playing industry’. It is understandable when universities design prototypes as a bridge to collaboration with industry, but it is obviously problematic when universities proclaim ability to do assembly line productions.

This is either a lie, or it indicates a problem that should be treated with the same absurdity as a proposal by say, Keroche Industries or Mabati Rolling Mills, to offer degrees in engineering. 

It does not require a superior intellect to guess who is best positioned to deliver with efficacy. In the US, shortly after Covid-19 cases began rising, President Donald Trump gave executive orders to General Motors -- and not Harvard or MIT -- to begin mass production of ventilators.

My second point is that universities need to be very cautious in centrering themselves as vanguards of industry innovation and generators of income. They are sending the wrong signals. They are implying that a university can be like an economic investment, that if public monies are received, then like an enterprise in the stock market, tangible economic benefits follow.

The logic implies that invention in the university, largely in its science labs, leads to innovation and profits. This line of thinking devalues research and confuses universities with industry. If universities adopt the logic of industry, they signal expectations that accompany for-profit entities. Of course, this sounds absurd, but not dissimilar to asking public institutions like the police or the public service, to make profit.

My third point speaks to the first two. An industry focus sways universities from concentrating on their fundamental roles. They shift toward ‘derivatives’ as opposed to fundamentals.

In the university, our role is to make students think, train their instincts and aid them to seek meaning. We push them to question assumptions and seek out alternatives. They learn to use evidence to identify and resolve dilemmas for adaptive capacity. But if we begin thinking and acting like industry, we undermine the adaptive capabilities of our students, as we narrowly focus on tightly regimented, and highly specific technical skills. We make them fundis.

When we do this, we focus on the derivatives (what the industry wants) rather than the fundamentals -- what our students and society need. Focusing on derivatives means training for the short-term, rather than for life. It means being swayed by fads, crises, trends and phenomenon, rather than meaningfully responding and adapting. In the universities, programmes that this column labelled ‘lollipop’ degrees are symptomatic of an obsession with derivatives.  

Why are universities clamouring for relevance in the context of the coronavirus crisis? This is evidence of an identity crisis. I will draw from history. For much of Sub-Saharan Africa in the 60s, universities were the fruits of nationalism, projects of development, whose major achievements was decolonisation and Africanisation. The 80s and 90s were the high noon of our universities.

Universities after 2000 are unsure whether they are research institutions, consulting firms, innovation centres or think tanks. History is yet to fully take stock of the trauma weighing on the university today.

My fourth point has to do with how universities position themselves to be socially relevant, without compromising fundamentals. A university is a resource for an unknown future. Previously, I argued that the primary concern of researchers is not to solve a problem, but to ask the right questions and offer suggestions or options. Some readers disagreed, suggesting that applied research directly links to solving actual problems, while basic research seeks to understand social phenomenon.

Original research

Partly true, but that would be adopting a technocratic view. Universities are not dispensaries. If we assume our role as researchers is to offer solutions, we limit our trade to that of technocrats and technicians.

But our fascination with products is disturbing. It is proof that original research is still a luxury. I will end my tirade with a quote from a reader, Vincent Rutto, a graduate of biomedical science. “As scientists, we are always under pressure to justify the importance of our work in terms of potential clinical applicability. Most of the research that we do is to try and generate knowledge and understand how things work. Down the road, opportunities for translation will arise.” I need not say more. Ours is to split the atom. Not to build the bomb.

- The writer works for the Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn (New York) [email protected]

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