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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A German pathway to higher education for Kenya

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed shakes hands with her Germany counterpart Frank Walter Steinmeier outside Foreign Affairs headquarters on Sunday, February 22, 2016. /COLLINS KWEYU
Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed shakes hands with her Germany counterpart Frank Walter Steinmeier outside Foreign Affairs headquarters on Sunday, February 22, 2016. /COLLINS KWEYU

A news item in the Star earlier this week caught my eye. It was about a some 1,000 Administration Police officers who had graduated from various local universities, and were now demanding their well-deserved promotion and its accompanying pay rise.

The report further specified that these police officers had claimed that “their counterparts in the GSU and regular police had already had their salaries reviewed a month after graduating”.

Two things about this news report struck me as noteworthy.

First was that here was a fine example of the burning ambition and deep respect for education that you find in so many ordinary Kenyans. For these men and women of the AP had reportedly taken loans of up to Sh500,000 each, in order to be able to enroll for their undergraduate studies.


Second, that the plight of these police officers revealed a major gap in our education policy, specifically in the area of creating new pathways to higher education for those who may not be lucky enough to get into university straight from secondary school.

This is where the German model of “universities of applied science" comes in.

I should explain that I was part of a group that recently went to Germany on an intense study tour of just such universities of applied sciences. This trip was part of the initial steps on the road to creating a university of applied science here in Kenya, to serve the entire East African region.

Germany has many famous “traditional” universities, which pursue much the same kind of advanced academic studies as our own universities here in Kenya – these include the immensely prestigious Heidelberg University, the Free University of Berlin and Humboldt University.

But parallel with these, Germany has a system of “universities of applied sciences” that take a completely different pathway in the provision of tertiary education. We spent a good deal of time at a couple of these institutions.


A website dedicated to helping international students who wish to study in Germany, explains it well:

“As the name implies, a university of applied sciences (UAS) offers courses which are practically orientated. . . . Based on scientific knowledge, the objective of courses at a UAS is mainly the relation to practice. This is achieved by the learning programmes, which are in general tightly structured, and by prescribed internships, which have the objective of giving you first impressions of the professional world from the beginning of your studies on. Many UASs also have technological transfer centres which tighten the bond to the corporate sector.”

This last sentence is something of an understatement, because what we saw in Germany was not just a “tightening of the bond” between academia and the corporate sector, but rather an industry driven parallel education system, which was characterized by what one speaker during our study tour defined as “a seamless engagement between the private sector and academia”.

It is a system that, from the very outset, allows those who do not gain admission into traditional universities straight out of high school to pursue a hands-on technology-oriented course, which they may then eventually lead to their being awarded an undergraduate degree.


The essential component of this system is the multiple, regular, practical field internships. As the passage quoted above puts it, these are “prescribed internships, which have the objective of giving you first impressions of the professional world from the beginning of your studies”.

The value of this kind of thing is best explained by examples, of which I can think of two in technological fields that should see dramatic growth within Kenya over the next decade or so.

First is the field of health – more specifically, biomedical engineering (i.e. the application of engineering principles and design concepts to medicine and biology for healthcare purposes, e.g. diagnostic or therapeutic.)

Do you remember all those advanced pieces of medical equipment intended for the top county hospitals that hardly anybody seemed to know how to use?

In case you don’t, here is what a local newspaper reported recently:

“The multi-billion-shilling medical equipment leasing plan was launched to answer the country’s need for accessible and affordable specialised healthcare. It came with a promise of bringing specialised healthcare services closer to the people.

But its takeoff was not without controversy, with the governors upset with the national government for assuming a devolved function without consultations.

In fact, some governors had refused to sign the memorandum of understanding for the leasing of theatre facilities, dialysis kits, intensive care unit equipment and X-ray machines which cost Sh38 billion.”

Now, leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that equipment should have been purchased outright, or just leased as was the case here, one constant in all this is that Kenya will need more people trained in biomedical engineering who could be relied on to assemble these machines; help operate them; and provide routine upgrade, maintenance and repair.

This is important especially if we are to evolve into “a regional medical tourism hub”, which is one of our long-term national economic goals.

The second field in which young Kenyans trained in applied sciences will be required, is that of Energy Technology.


We are accustomed to thinking of energy supplies as coming from massive hydroelectric dams, or from geothermal wells in the Rift Valley. But modern power supplies actually focus increasingly on decentralised power generation, mostly through wind turbines (once again, most frequently found in the Rift Valley) and rooftop solar panels.

We are already launched on the path to these more efficient modern power sources, with plans for dozens of wind farms, and millions of solar panels.

And if we continue along this path, we will once again need thousands of youth trained in the application of advanced solar technologies – customization, installation, maintenance, repairs, etc.

The proposed East African German University of Applied Sciences would offer such opportunities to precisely the kind of young men and women with modest KCSE results who ended up as police officers, largely because they could not get a place in a public university. It would open up a whole new path to a university degree.

Those who were admitted would undergo a multiple-year training alternating between being on internship in businesses engaged in these fields – Energy Technology or Biomedical Engineering – and classroom learning. And they would further be able to choose whether to pursue this all the way to a degree, or to only go up to a diploma.


In either case, given this “seamless engagement between private sector and academia”, the young men and women in this programme would be guaranteed employment in one field of engineering or another, much the same way that any young person who enters the Kiganjo Police Training College is guaranteed a job as a policeman or policewoman.

My personal view is that the most significant aspect of this proposed new university is that it serves as an example of a better way to create the manpower needed for our national dreams of industrialization; and of evolving into a regional medical hub. It would be a replicable success story.

And another major advantage, to my mind, is that, given this advanced training in biomedical engineering or energy technology, if these young Kenyans chose to, they could seek employment regionally or even abroad, where they could command far heftier salaries than anything we can pay them within Kenya.

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