• Reality is that higher education and specifically the quality of university education has been inadvertently diluted and or downgraded by successive regimes.
• This dire situation has been exacerbated by the reduction of government funding towards universities.
The Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms handed over their second interim report to President William Ruto late a few weeks ago.
Among other proposals therein, is the increment of University Education fees from Sh16,000 to Sh 52,000 for government-sponsored students, which has attracted mixed reactions from Kenyans.
As a beneficiary of the higher education government sponsored programme at the University of Nairobi, this definitely does not resonate with my solemn ideas on higher education.
Reality is that higher education and specifically the quality of university education has been inadvertently diluted and or downgraded by successive regimes. This dire situation has been exacerbated by the reduction of government funding towards universities.
From Egerton to UoN, we have seen university councils grappling with fundraising challenges to meet the high operation costs of running their universities. Rarely will a week end without a news end item of Kenya University Staff Union or University Academic Staff Union issuing strike notices.
The Presidential Working Party on Education should retreat to review, analyze and evaluate their recommendations as directed by the President and put the following into focus.
One, there is a salient and dire need to stop massification of university education. Me thinks for us to transform our country economically, then we must engineer a radical shift from the similar type high school looking universities into a pyramid of excellence.
To start with, the government must revert to the introduction of prerequisite cut off points for university entry. The current system where there is 100 per cent transition by those who score C+ and above has congested universities, straining resources and amenities.
The flip side of this is that the bulge has led to diffusion and dilution of courses, some of which have no market value. The current crop of students lives in squalid conditions in hostels, squeeze in research centres and lecture halls, and breach the recommended lecturer-student ratio. As conceived and conceptualized by Plato, those in the ‘universitas’ are the cream of society and, therefore, should behave, live and be treated as such.
Second, for existing universities, they have two options: It is either they find a niche or downgrade to technical institutes or polytechnics. In this time and age, it is preposterous that erstwhile institutions conceptualised to offer technical knowledge and skills have been converted to schools of humanities and social sciences, thereby stifling the country of the much-needed SMAT [Science, Maths and Technology] experts.
It would be interesting to know the justification of ‘upgrading and awarding of charter’ to the Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi to the Technical University of Kenya, stifling the technical aspects of it and robustly introducing humanities and arts.
I still have vivid memories of a conversation President Ruto started while serving as the Higher Education minister of the need of universities to focus on SMAT as a panacea to our underdevelopment in manufacturing and industrial growth.
I hope he will bite the bullet and steer us towards that transformation by first recalling and or revoking university charters dished out haphazardly.
Kenya just needs five to 10 universities compared to the current 30 (public), 30 chartered private universities and 30 universities with letter of interim authority. What the country needs is well equipped, resourced and well managed county polytechnics affordable to the millions of young men and women thirsting for training and skills equipping.
Third, the financing of public universities needs a radical overhaul. Public universities have an accumulated debt of an astronomical Sh56 billion that is unsustainable as it keeps ballooning. This situation is due to budgetary cuts by the Exchequer by successive governments, increase of student numbers resulting in reduced capitation per student and the dire situation further exacerbated by the repelling of Module II Programme famously referred to as the Parallel Programme that guaranteed public universities of the much needed revenue.
From where I sit, having served as the students representative to the UoN Council and Senate, I can authoritatively say without government funding either directly or through student education loan, public universities will either collapse or university fees will be exorbitant and unbearable to most parents.
Lastly, Helb has to be restructured to be in tandem with today’s realities. The loan should specifically focus on needy and bright students, while parents who can afford to pay for their children’s university education should do so. Helb, as conceptualized, should be able to cater for the upkeep of needy students in campuses without which it would be dicey affair for the children from humble backgrounds to access the key to life.
As Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, “Nothing so good as a university education, nor worse than university without its education”.
Suffice to say, our higher education and specifically university education is in the ICU. We have planted universities without university education, converted technical institutes into schools of humanities and arts, indignified the lives of university students and contemptuously overlooked the role of education in society.
As the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms retreats, it is my hope that its recommendations will catalyst the competitively enrolling of students in universities to successfully pursue and graduates with a skill or training with labour-market value.
Alex Matere is a youth policy expert and executive director, Youth Bridge Kenya