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Inbreeding, nepotism and underfunding have brought university education in Kenya to its knees

By Dr Evelyn Jepkemei | January 24th 2022 | 5 min read

That university education in Kenya is in crisis is not in question. We can bury our heads in the sand all we like, but the reality is that what we face is a multi-pronged crisis, with the elephant in the room being quantitative in nature.

Indeed, expansion of university education has not always been in tandem with the increasing population of youth who need university training. Unfortunately, the deleterious effect of years of focusing on basic education and neglecting higher education has now ballooned into a monster.

For one, the focus on investing in basic education has ensured high enrolment rates at the basic education level, with very few students advancing to higher levels. End of course examinations such as KCPE and KCSE have been used as a funnel to determine who moves to the next level. But even then, those few that are funnelled into university find themselves in a system broken by years of gross underfunding and neglect.

Perhaps, what threatens the core of university education the most is the quality crisis implying the system’s fitness to meet the very need for university education. Underfunding university education does not only present a quantitative problem of large classes and fewer reference materials, it actually affects the quality of outputs and outcomes because universities are expected to undertake research, which requires funding and other resources.

In the last few years, the government has systematically defunded universities. Defunding universities is akin to lowering the ranking of our universities regionally and globally since ranking is based on research output. And even when research is attempted in our universities, the quality is woefully low. Research capacity in the form of published peer-reviewed articles, and Master’s and Doctoral output is disturbingly weak. Most lecturers and PhD students who publish often turn to predatory journals that demand payment and lack the requisite rigorous review. These articles hardly have any impact on scholarship except earning the writer a promotion in tandem with the Commission of University Education (CUE)’s imperatives.

Research quality and output should and can be increased in the context of national and regional needs articulated through close collaboration between research institutions, government and other stakeholders, without compromising the autonomy of universities.

However, Kenyan universities have remained rigid bureaucratic units. Even though a few non-state organisations undertake research and could collaborate with universities in such ventures, crippling and excessive bureaucratisation and poor administrative systems at universities have made it impossible for our local universities to partner with other institutions of research.

Employing lecturers to teach on a part-time basis also creates a contractual ceiling and becomes a trap for academics — perpetual precarious employment. A cohort of permanently insecure part-time lecturers has been created by universities’ appetite for expansion. This unplanned expansion has also created a notion that the university is no more than a village institution where villagers have a say on who is hired and who is not.

The acting vice-chancellor saga at Moi university in 2016 memorably explained the nepotism in our universities. In real terms, there have been cases where lecturers support students from their ethnic groups and pass them during dissertation defence while some students are similarly penalised for belonging to the “wrong” ethnic group.  Yet, the success of post-graduate students rests to a large extent on good supervision. This includes providing experienced input on research methodologies,  theoretical framing and the ability to guide students through data analysis. Given the small numbers of academics who are active researchers and who hold PhDs, the quality of research even at PhD level leaves a lot to be desired. Training in postgraduate supervision may be a useful mechanism for building postgraduate output.

There is also a dominant but destructive tradition in universities globally, quite prevalent in Kenya where a student chooses to study from undergraduate to PhD in one university, and gets employed as a lecturer in the same university.  This faculty inbreeding is very problematic and is associated with a whole range of worrisome issues in relation to the academic and administrative functions of university systems. It limits the scope of hiring the best possible candidates for academic appointments and tends to entrench the (weak) academic culture already existing in institutions where inbreeding occurs. This makes reform even more difficult than would normally be the case.

Apart from solidifying hierarchical relationships within departments and faculties, it inhibits opportunities for new ideas concerning academic discipline as well as the organisation of studies and curriculum. New perspectives and new relationships do not take hold as easily. In the 21st century, where knowledge is rapidly changing and increasingly globalised, inbreeding engenders traditionalism, which limits excellence and innovation.

Academic inbreeding is perpetuated by nonexistent or weak national academic labour markets; limited sources of employable PhD holders; traditions of immobility in both employment and society; and lack of faith in candidate screening and hiring mechanisms that do not involve personal or ethnic ties. The core fabric of the university begins to rip and students and lecturers focus on survival tactics rather than scholarship. You don’t need a degree to make it where things are headed in such circumstances.

Another significant challenge to the growth of research capacity is the loss of minds to more developed countries. While there is value in embracing brain circulation, this does not detract from the imperative to retain Kenya’s intellectual capacity. The need is indeed urgent to develop incentives and mechanisms for Kenyan universities to retain their intellectual talent.

A stronger more supportive higher education system can play a significant role in enticing those who have left to return. Together with this is the need to address the weaknesses of postgraduate study programmes. Although there haven’t been extensive systematic reviews of postgraduate education in our universities,  there is constant reference to the poor quality of such programmes.

A  viable cost-effective and efficient university education system that produces relevant and sufficient research output is critical to the national development agenda. Kenya must confront therefore the urgent and compelling need to extensively reconfigure and revitalise its university education.


— Evelyn Jepkemei, PhD, is an Education research, policy and leadership expert. Email: [email protected]

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