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Varsities should focus more on research and innovation

By Ndirangu Ngunjiri | May 16th 2016

The Ministry of Education, through the Commission for University Education (CUE), has given out new guidelines to post-graduate students to publish more before graduation.

This is a great move considering our post-graduate students are more class-based. My question is as a masters or PhD student, why should I attend classes, rather than be in the field developing new innovations through research.

Global university rankings measure how universities perform based on a range of indicators. The most influential ones focus heavily on research, using criteria such as academic reputation surveys and citations in international or high-impact journals.

Kenyan universities’ priorities should be research to solve the myriad development challenges facing the country, communicating their findings appropriately to stakeholders and engaging with the wider community to meet internationally agreed development goals.

But African universities face enormous challenges in promoting research to support development, especially through doctoral education. One such challenge is promoting doctoral-level education.

Our country is less concerned in increasing higher education strategy and focuses mainly on increasing undergraduate student enrollment.

As a result of this strategy, the massive increase in student enrollment over the past couple of decades has not been accompanied by a proportionate increase in academic staff. This has brought heavy teaching loads, leaving academic staff little time for research. And it has dented the quality of education received by students who graduate from their first degree, and are the potential postgraduate students.

Currently, doctoral research in Kenya is a personal enterprise. Researchers need to secure funding for their work, and use the findings for their own promotion through publications in international journals. Rarely do their results, even when relevant to development, reach the appropriate community or inform policy.

The Kenyan government can take several initiatives to both improve research capacity and boost post-graduate education.

First, it should abandon the approach of creating new universities in the existing model, or upgrading technical colleges and polytechnics to universities. Tertiary education needs ‘mission differentiation’.

Each university will also need a central unit to manage research and postgraduate education — to decide on financial incentives for students and supervisors, for example, and run training seminars. Such a unit would not supersede the department’s academic role but would complement it in administrative matters.

In addition, post-graduate students should be required to prepare a simple, concise brief of their findings and recommendations, aimed at the end-user community or at policy makers. At present, most results get published in academic journals, or appear in theses on library shelves. In both cases, findings are not used by the people who need them.

Our universities need reforms that promote research. But these reforms should extend to putting the research to practical use. Research in Kenya should not be undertaken merely to generate knowledge but also to help promote sustainable development.

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