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September 19, 2018

Radical varsity reform overdue

University of Nairobi./FILE
University of Nairobi./FILE

Change is in the air. The government is pushing for radical change in the higher education sector.

According to the Commission for University Education, the public university system is not sustainable and is not delivering value for students and the country.

According to the CUE, we have too many public universities; 31 fully fledged universities and six constituent colleges.

The radical proposals contained in the report ‘Policy Advisory on Rationalisation of Universities and Programmes in Kenya’, include creating a ‘University System’, which would see the merger of universities in a given region.

This could enhance efficiency through prudent and optimal deployment of resources, human and financial. Duplication of courses would end.

For example, a University of Nairobi System would merge Kenyatta University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Technical University of Kenya and the University of Nairobi. Similarly, a Western University System would merge Moi, Maseno, Masinde Muliro and Migori and Kisii universities.

The creation of a University System would create national centres of excellence, building stronger linkages between town and gown, and providing universities, industry and communities with an opportunity to collaborate and address real problems.

We are frustrated by the dis-junction between university education and real life skills possessed by graduates.

Other measures include support for research, faculty development and, most importantly, improved terms of service for academic staff.

Public universities and any university cannot attain teaching and research excellence without an army of tutorial fellows and teaching and research postdoctoral fellows.

Public universities must reclaim their past glory as centres of academic rigour and public intellectual powerhouses.

Another area that needs attention is governance. Leadership in public universities is, to put it mildly, woefully inadequate. In every way, public universities are decaying, falling apart physically. From laboratories to student hostels to lecture theatres, physical facilities are in a deplorable state.

Our campuses are not inspiring. They certainly don’t look like places inhabited by our brightest minds.

The state of our universities is an indictment of academic leadership and governance. Leadership capacity does not come naturally or inevitably with the attainment of a PhD.

Like all things in life, the capacity to lead is trained and nurtured.

From heads of department to deans and directors of institutes, we must identify, train and mentor the next generation of academic leaders.

They must not be petty bureaucrats but knowledge and intellectual entrepreneurs who work with faculty, students, industry, government and communities to design knowledge products to address societal challenges.

But more importantly, university reform must also involve academic programmes as well as content.

The atomisation of knowledge is not helpful, especially because problems do not come organised along academic disciplines.

We must think about re-organising departments and schools to focus more around big problems and educate the next generation of systems thinkers who are fluent in complexity.

Universities must earn their honour as well as their keep. They must be vibrant enterprises bringing knowledge and innovation to bear on society’s challenges.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University. 

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