Clean up varsity education to redeem Kenya’s image
By Kamotho Waiganjo | January 31st 2016
This week there was hue and cry from students and parents of various campuses threatened with closure by the Commission for University Education.
In true Kenyan fashion, politicians also entered the fray and the matter veered towards our typical ethnic paradigm. A while ago there were similar complaints when the Council for Legal Education threatened to close one of the University Law Schools for offering substandard legal education. As far as I know the matter is now in court.
Two personal experiences define my view on this matter. The first is my experience, several years ago, as a lecturer at the Kenya School of Law. Because our classes were large, one never got to assess the true competencies of their students until examination time. However, marking over 350 papers during the Christmas holidays was hardly the opportunity for genuine assessment. I therefore used to grant students an oral examination where I would give them an opportunity to speak on any legal subject provided they also allowed me to question them on anything within their chosen topic. While a good number of students were exceptional, I must express my shock that conservatively, 30 per cent of the students could hardly express themselves coherently in English. They could not participate in any conversation that required basic intellectual rigour. I have held more intellectually stimulating discourse with high school students!
My second experience was a visit to Kehancha, Migori County several years ago. This town was one of the most remote parts of Kenya with hardly an inch of tarmac anywhere in the whole district. Kehancha town was your typical dusty outpost with an open market, dull shops, busy bars and not much else. To my surprise one of the public universities had a campus in Kehancha; above some shops. Now, I do not wish to begrudge Lilian Mahiri-Zaja, Bevin Bhoke and the illustrious Kuria people a university; but surely the thing called a university campus in Kehancha was an insult to them! I can bet there was no faculty member worth their name teaching or looking after that campus. The campus itself looked forlorn in the most uninspiring environment for academic pursuit. I did not spot a library or any pretense of the same. I could not believe that some Vice Chancellor was collecting fees for the residents of Kehancha purporting to be offering university education!
Where did the rain start beating us on university education? I remember once going through the process of pursuing a Charter for a university and it was very rigorious! What shocked me is that once the Charter was granted, it was laissez-faire after that. You could set up a campus above some back street bar and get persons undertaking their Masters courses as your faculty.
Even within the established cities, many of the universities had so lowered their standards that to call them universities was to abuse the term! The now famous parallel degrees and numerous MBAs, while well intentioned, were largely becoming a fraud. I was therefore one of the greatest supporters of the review of the regulatory framework for university education and I must commend the current Commission for the hardline it is taking on the matter.
What Kenyans must recognise is that the watering down on the quality of university education is terrible on many fronts. Not only does it produce half-baked professionals unable to tackle the demands of the job market, but it also diminishes the brand of Kenyan university education. Most people do not make the distinction between good and poor universities in Kenya; they only know that Kenya produces half-baked graduates. Who can forget how long India has taken to clean up its image of a producer of paper degrees? Yet India has amazing campuses. But any employer looking for good employees instinctively avoids the Indian graduates!
There is no alternative to strict regulation of this critical sector. The mediocrity that has defined more and more of our public sector must not be allowed to reign in the universities. If that means we close the lot and reopen only those that can truly be called universities, so be it. We will all be the ultimate winners.
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