Quality of university education is a top priority for Kenya’s economic competitive strategies. It is hard for the country to become a middle-level country by 2030 without matching transformation in the quality of higher education outcomes and equitable distribution in learning opportunities.
According to the World Bank’s Vice President for Africa, Mahktar Diop, “since Africa is discovering oil, gas and minerals every other month, we should be able to extract from the market and invest the earnings in higher quality education and double the share of African universities graduates in the field of STEM by 2025”.
It is not easy to define 'quality' and 'proficiency' in the field of education. People recognise quality or proficiency when they see them. Quality has been defined as “fitness for purpose”, that is research, skills, community engagement and conforming to generally accepted standards as defined by national institutions, quality assurance bodies and the relevant academic and professional communities globally.
We will not lose sight of the fact that there are challenges for any country to keep pace, maintain competitive quality education and national capacity building in a world where the global knowledge pool is partly becoming obsolete as it expands exponentially in the shape of an inverted pyramid at the speed of thought. For sometime now, there have been ongoing healthy debates in Kenya concerning what has been described as the declining quality of university education, proficiency and the “scandal of Kenyan universities” without a single professor.
Among the world’s top 2,000 universities in the latest rankings, the University of Nairobi is the only Kenyan university listed at position 1425. The educational quality gap between the global “best of the best” and Kenyan universities might continue to expand if purposeful strategic measures are not put in place urgently. As the media highlights in their headlines, this is a watershed moment for most of our universities: “Varsities shocker in declared costs for their courses; Broke universities; Falling students retention and completion rates”.
Are the problems facing our universities and colleges unresolvable? The challenges are resolvable, if approached in an interdisciplinary manner that will correctly deal with reality in Kenya’s world of academia. Such formula has to be driven by competency, commitment and character. The experts in Kenya’s higher education agree that the following five factors are the key drivers of Kenya’s dream of transforming its knowledge output and world rankings “to be among the world’s best and brightest”.
First driver of quality higher education are the contextual social economic factors. We are living in a “politically and socially turbulent world”. A combination of poor infrastructure, unstable socio-political environment and the fact that majority of students hail from poor backgrounds almost always results in producing uncompetitive graduates. As we know, organizations everywhere are environmental dependents and our universities are not an exception. The second factor is resources, which is a “no-brainer” question. Institutional stability and excellence are critical to any university’s reputation and vitality.
A university’s cumulative excellence, infrastructure, growth and stability can be developed and maintained only if there are competitive finances. Someone said, “Money is not everything for organization’s performance; it is the only thing, the magnet”. The third factor driving quality of higher education are governance and mutual high expectations of all the key stakeholders. These factors relate partly to national governance as well as the performance of the respective institutions and the broader issues of the participation of key stakeholders. Good governance provides leadership creativity and innovation to their institutions.
They find ways of overcoming learned helplessness called the boiling frog syndrome. If we throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if we place a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat, it will boil to death because of “effects of learned helplessness”. The fourth factor driving quality of higher education is excellence of staffing and pedagogical culture.
There are needs for deeper process of transformation of lecturers’ incentives, pedagogical culture and practice through benchmarking, advanced training and academic retreats called “book camps”. I always wondered why even after 59 years of Kenya’s independence and with more than 60 universities, we don’t have chairs and professors named in Honour of the country’s historical leading scholars in the style of, say, USA’s elite universities, “Alfred Sloan professor of management, Paul Samuelson, Professor of Economics at Yale or Issack Newton Mathematics chair, Cambridge”.
We can have our own, say, “Ali Mazrui Professor/chair of humanities/political science, UON, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Professor/ chair of Literature, David Wasawo Professor of Science/chair, Wangari Mathai professor/chair and so on”. As South Koreans love to say, “The quality of any higher education system cannot exceed the competency, quality of its faculty members and institutional managers”.
The fifth factor is engaging and empowering students. Students are the first stakeholders of any university and meeting their needs well is to find a world of applause. Students should have channels to express their views, empower their representations and welcome their concerns about issues of the day. There is need for world class universities in Kenya producing the best of graduates, 2023 – 2040 and beyond.