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Why quality of graduates has been on the decline

By Babere Chacha and John Wahome | March 4th 2021

During our many years of intimate interaction with university students, we have enjoyed with fatherly satisfaction seeing callow and clueless freshmen transition into mature and notable professionals. The crème de la crème from all disciplines have often been recycled to read for their masters and PhDs, soon becoming excellent scholars after the images of their proud supervisors.

We are therefore in a unique position to make accurate comparative analyses of the changing quality of university students over the years and to pinpoint some causes of the degradation of our universities which are supposed to be the citadels of knowledge and our national pride.

It is during mid-semester tests, industrial-cum-teaching practice assessment, external moderation of examinations, and end of semester examinations - all ongoing activities in most local universities - where we have noticed with deep sadness the gaping absence of originality and creativity in continuing students. Most poignantly, the academic courage and fighting spirit so inherent in past generations of young scholars is utterly missing. 

Our youth will of course dispute this. But sincere and unbiased retrospection reveals that before universities comically proliferated in every corner of this country, there was tenacity and focus among campus denizens which is hard to find today. Oh, for the days when we practised street sociology and pavement politics!

The appointment of high-valued professors to political positions, political support for ethnic-based organisations in the universities and the creation of ethnic-based university councils composed of politicians and businessmen are other factors that will always ensure that quality in our universities remains perennially low.

The weakening of the academic gene-pool is cross-cutting, manifesting among teaching staff in some feeble, class-skipping, university-hopping lecturers, who have no recognisable scholarly or research tradition, and who obviously landed faculty jobs through contacts rather than intellectual ability.

Tenacious scholars of yore, of which the late professor Ali Mazrui was a perfect embodiment, derived sartorial inspiration from Mao, Karl Marx and Wole Soyinka, often donning formidable ‘academic beards’ which made them look considerably like the all-wise, divine character in Michelangelo’s fresco ‘The creation of Adam’. But looks aside, these intellectuals did deliver, writing evergreen and cerebrally-dense works which are perfectly quotable to this very day.

Mazrui was in 2005 ranked by the American Foreign Policy magazine as the 73rd topmost intellectual globally. He was once so highly prized in the United States that a famous bidding war between the University of Michigan and State University of New York (SUNY) for his services ensued, culminating with SUNY winning with a half million dollars package, thanks to intense lobbying by then New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

Similarly, the deceptively unkempt guys in the sciences could work wonders. Some of them memorably taught the most cryptic post-graduate mathematics for two semesters in a row without ever glancing at lecture notes-not for a show, but to be simply true to their superior pedigree.

It seems that recent cohorts of students give up too easily when faced with serious challenges. Hardly digging deeper than what their lecturers offer in class, many of them are petrified by the prospect of looming examinations, often resorting to unconventional methods in order to pass.

A much-anticipated event at the end of the current semester is the graduation of a contingent of students popularly known as ‘The Matiang’i group’, who have the unique distinction of being first to emerge successfully from the 2016 drastic firewall of reforms, strict rules and conditions instituted by the then Cabinet Secretary of Education to help stamp out examination cheating. These ‘decorated’ 2016 KCSE candidates were welcomed to the universities with pomp and great expectations.

Some researchers are eager to interrogate whether this group’s vaunted entry behaviour will correlate in any way with their exit, or whether Dr Matiang’i’s well-intentioned efforts, like many similar Kenyan projects, were all hat and no cattle.

Another problematic development is the proliferation of online betting platforms and other distractive internet sites which have lured many students from their studies, as they gambled their school fees away.

Finally, politics is now Kenya’s most lucrative occupation, completely eclipsing all previously respected careers including medicine, law and architecture. What a perfect killjoy when brilliant students see their role-model medics picketing on the streets for better pay! As we have noted before in this column, the government accords the lowest political cadre (MCAs) far better financial remuneration than the long-suffering folks at the top of the academic food chain (professors).

There is no better way to send a message to aspiring scholars that, in the long run, there is little to gain in this country by confining oneself to a library or a lab like a hermit, while the real feast continues on the outside.


Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University

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