That university education in Kenya is in crisis is not in question. We can bury our heads in the sand all we want, but the reality is that we are facing a multi-pronged crisis, the elephant in the room being quantitative in nature.
Indeed, the expansion of university education has not always gone hand in hand with the increase in the population of young people in need of a university education. Unfortunately, the deleterious effect of years of focusing on basic education and neglecting higher education has now become a monster.
On the one hand, the focus on investment in basic education has ensured high enrollment rates at the basic education level, with very few students progressing to higher levels. End of course exams such as KCPE and KCSE have been used as a funnel to determine who moves on to the next level. But even then, the few who are directed to college find themselves in a system broken by years of gross underfunding and neglect.
Perhaps what most threatens the heart of university education is the quality crisis involving the system’s ability to meet the very need for university education. The underfunding of university education not only presents 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 funds and other resources.
In recent years, the government has systematically cut funding for universities. Funding universities means lowering the ranking of our universities regionally and globally since the ranking is based on research results. And even when research is attempted in our universities, the quality is woefully low. Research capacity in the form of peer-reviewed published articles and master’s and doctoral outcomes is alarmingly weak. Most professors and doctoral students who publish often turn to predatory journals that demand payment and lack the rigorous review required. These papers have little impact on scholarship other than earning the author promotion in tandem with the imperatives of the Commission on University Education (CUE).
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 remained rigid bureaucratic units. Although a few non-state organizations undertake research and could collaborate with universities in such endeavors, crippling and excessive bureaucratization and poor administrative systems in universities have made it impossible for our local universities to partner with other institutions of research.
Employing professors to teach part-time also creates a contractual ceiling and becomes a trap for academics – perpetual precarious employment. A cohort of part-time teachers in a situation of permanent insecurity has been created by the universities’ appetite for expansion. This unplanned expansion also created the idea that the university is nothing more than a village institution where the villagers have a say in who is hired and who is not.
The 2016 Moi University Acting Vice Chancellor Saga memorably explained nepotism in our universities. Concretely, there have been cases where professors support students from their ethnic groups and pass them in the thesis defense while some students are also penalized for belonging to the “wrong” ethnic group. However, the success of postgraduate students depends largely on good supervision. This includes providing experienced insight into research methodologies, theoretical framing, and the ability to guide students through data analysis. Given the small number of academics who are active researchers and who hold PhDs, the quality of research even at the PhD level leaves much to be desired. Training in postgraduate supervision can be a useful mechanism for developing postgraduate production.
There is also a prevailing but destructive tradition in universities around the world, quite prevalent in Kenya where a student chooses to study from undergraduate to PhD at one university and is employed as a lecturer at the same university. This faculty inbreeding is highly problematic and is associated with a range of troubling issues regarding the academic and administrative functions of university systems. It limits the ability to hire the best possible candidates for academic appointments and tends to entrench the (weak) academic culture that already exists in institutions where inbreeding occurs. This makes reform even more difficult than it normally would be.
In addition to solidifying hierarchical relationships within departments and faculties, it inhibits opportunities for new ideas regarding academic discipline as well as the organization of studies and programs. New perspectives and new relationships don’t come so easily. In the 21st century, where knowledge is changing rapidly and becoming increasingly global, inbreeding breeds traditionalism, which limits excellence and innovation.
Academic inbreeding is perpetuated by non-existent or weak national academic labor markets; limited sources of employable PhDs; traditions of immobility both in employment and in society; and the lack of confidence in the mechanisms for selecting and hiring candidates that do not involve personal or ethnic ties. The central fabric of the university begins to tear apart, and students and faculty focus on survival tactics rather than scholarship. You don’t need a degree to get where things are heading in such circumstances.
Another important challenge to the growth of research capacity is the loss of minds to more developed countries. While there is value in embracing brain circulation, it does not take away from the imperative to retain Kenya’s intellectual capacity. There is indeed an urgent need to develop incentives and mechanisms for Kenyan universities to retain their intellectual talent.
A stronger and more supportive higher education system can play an important role in enticing those who have left to return. Along with this, there is a need to address weaknesses in postgraduate study programs. Although there have been no in-depth systematic reviews of postgraduate education in our universities, there are constant references to the poor quality of these programs.
A viable, cost-effective and efficient university education system that produces relevant and sufficient research output is essential to the national development agenda. Kenya therefore faces the urgent and compelling need to fundamentally reconfigure and revitalize its university education.
— Evelyn Jepkemei, PhD, is an expert in education research, policy and leadership. E-mail: [email protected]