Higher Education: Why Kenyan Universities Lag Behind

Published on 23rd July 2012

President Kibaki presides over a graduation ceremony.  P. Courtesy

The mushrooming of private universities and the soaring number of graduates from both private and public universities remains the most visible indicator of development in the Kenyan education sector. A few years ago, public universities introduced parallel university classes. Recently, the ministry of education announced that all Form 4 graduates who attain minimum university entry grades would be guaranteed a place in a private or public university. Indeed, with a total of 31 universities in the country, there is no reason why one should not further his or her education.

Parents can now enrol their children who failed to get desired courses or minimum grades in the public universities. The working class on the other hand is presented with an opportunity where those who could not pursue university education for whatever reasons can now go back and enrol for a degree. Despite these, there have been concerns about the caliber of graduates manufactured under these new-privileged arrangements, and the quality of education offered by both private and public universities have remained questionable.

While universities in Asia, America, Europe and other parts of the world have conducted successful research and produced thinkers who have ended up being inventors, entrepreneurs and risk takers, the same cannot be said about our graduates. There is hardly any news of innovations or research breakthroughs emanating from the corridors of our universities. Our Universities seem to have stagnated if not declined in the construct of quality educations.  The country has increased the number of university graduates per year, but the numbers have failed to address the issue of quality.

Declining Grades

Our education system has played a fundamental role in encouraging students towards pursuing immediate gratification rather than long-term goals and objectives. The meritocracy of our educations system appears to be exams. The system emphasis is on taking and passing exams as compared to other systems which encourage students to be innovators or thinkers and failing exams doesn’t necessarily close all doors. Our graduates’ post campus vision is quite hazy and limited. Perhaps, this explains the limited number of inventors, entrepreneurs and risk takers among our graduates. Some students have treated their graduation from university as their life’s peak achievement, after which they relax and wait for employment.

The pursuant for immediate gratification or short-term goals seems to have consumed the originality and ingenuity of the students’ work and assignments. The students are ready to do anything to pass and graduate. Allegations of students hiring third parties to work on their assignments, University clerks being bribed to alter student marks and other vices that demean the integrity of our education have been rampant.

The lecturers have equally limited the students’ thinking capabilities by spoon-feeding them with recycled teaching notes year after year. A few years ago, a local media house published a story of a university graduate who was working as a bicycle taxi operator, commonly referred to as ‘boda boda.’ An organization intervened and offered him a job. The student’s case is telling about the quality of our graduates, their ingenuity and hopes. Why would one pursue university education to be a boda boda operator? Our education system may be the instigator of stunted curiosity, creativity and limited ambitions evidenced among our university graduates and citizens.

Regrettably, lack of creativity has not been confined to students only; lecturers also share a big chunk of the blame. It is common knowledge that most teachers and lecturers in universities around the world receive scanty salaries compared to their academic equals in other professions. But, it is through research and production of academic papers that the professors and lecturers make extra money in most universities overseas. In fact, in many European and American universities, it is a requirement that the lecturers produce new academic papers or propositions periodically or face the axe. It may surprise you that some lecturers in our universities have only one positional paper or the only paper to their credit being the dissertation presented for the purpose of their graduation. Such lecturers cannot harness creativity from their students, but can only help them pass and graduate. Like their lecturers, the students sink into the pit of academic infertility after graduating.

For how long are our universities going to continue offering mediocre education standards? It is true that in the 1970’s and early 1980, our universities had the highest volume of research in Africa and have produced distinguished gentlemen who have gone to be pillars in different professions in the past. Where did this glory disappear? If Kenya is to achieve the much-lauded 2030 vision, which according to the National Economic and Social Council of Kenya (NESC) aims at making Kenya an industrialized nation and hopes to raise the quality and relevance of our education system. We must start by overhauling the quality of graduates coming from our universities.  We need to heed the advice of former Higher Education Minister, William Ruto who asked the government to invest in churning out graduates who can contribute towards the 2030 vision.

According to The Rise of the Great Nation, a TV series aired in China between 2006 and 2007, China emphasizes that in the new world order, a nation can sustain its competitive edge only if it has the knowledge and technological capacity to keep innovating. That is why we should be worried about our nation that seems to be short of innovators.  Our graduates must be productive, dependable and stop being obsessed in myopic and short term achievements. Kenya needs better-educated and trained workforce who can focus on the future if we are to move up the economic value chain and achieve the 2030 vision. We need to move past the model of spending vast resources to satisfy immediate gratification, but be stakeholders in developments that would see us not only alleviate poverty levels but our graduates and universities measuring up to other universities in the world.

There is no reason why our universities and graduates should not be stakeholders in the pursuant of researches ranging from renewable and alternative energy to biotechnology and nanotechnology studies. But, apart from funding from the government and donors, the lecturers need to be proactive. The students and future graduates need to priorities their goals well and focus on long-term goals, well beyond graduations. This may be the only way Kenya may become the next India, Brazil or Singapore.

By Maj (R) Edward Kadima Lutta
Email: eklutta@hotmail.com

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