Higher education reform must be driven by dialogue

It's time to hit the pause button and discuss about poor quality of graduates and programmes

In Summary

• 31 VCs say there has been little consultation on what reforms are needed

Education CS George Magoha during his vetting at County Hall on Thursday
THIS IS THE POINT: Education CS George Magoha during his vetting at County Hall on Thursday

Education CS George Magoha is pushing for unprecedented and radical measures to rationalise university education. Merger of universities is in the offing. Academic programmes will be cut. Academic and non-academic staff will be laid off. Campuses will be closed.

Academics are opposed to what Prof Magoha, a former Vice Chancellor, says are long overdue reforms. According to Vice Chancellors of 31 public universities, there has been little consultation on what reforms are needed in Kenya’s university education. In their view, academics and not the government bureaucrats should drive the education reform discussion.

In May, Prof Magoha ordered the Commission for University Education (CUE) to audit the quality of degree programmes, amid rising concerns that universities were offering irrelevant and inferior courses. Moreover, the credibility of postgraduate and PhD degrees awarded by local universities has come under scrutiny, amid claims that some degrees are awarded irregularly.

The expansion of university education in Kenya has been most rapid in the last two decades. During this expansion, both programmes and campuses proliferated. Physical facilities were stretched thin. In most cases, learning facilities cannot support quality teaching and learning. In some universities, laboratory and library resources can barely cope with student learning demands.

But more importantly and in fact of urgent concern, faculty resources have not expanded sufficiently to cope with the expansion of universities and the proliferation of academic programmes. There is a disconcerting dearth of PhD-qualified faculty across all universities in the country. According to CUE, 53 per cent of academic staff hold a master’s qualification. Only 32 per cent of university faculty hold a PhD degree.

The shortage is especially acute in fields like medicine, law, journalism/media, engineering, economics and life sciences. This dearth has huge implications on how we prepare a critical mass of human capital to deliver, for example, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda. It presents an existential threat to the tertiary education ecosystem, which has the potential to diminish the ambitious expansion plans for TIVET, which is a critical foundation for workforce development.

As I have said before, what we face with respect to higher education is a wicked problem. It also reminds me of the fable of the elephant and the blind experts. The elephant is a pillar, shouted the blind expert, who held the elephant’s leg. Oh no, retorted the expert, who had the tusk in his hand. It is a solid pipe. And the experts went on and on, describing the elephant’s body parts, and insisting that by their witness and experience or expertise, they were authorities.

The state of higher education is dire. Urgent, corrective action is needed. Merging universities and closing programmes is certainly one option. What is informing these decisions? What do we need to know before we act?

It's time to hit the pause button and have a robust and exhaustive national dialogue, backed by reliable evidence, beyond subjective anecdotes about poor quality of graduates and programmes.

Alex Awiti is the Vice Provost and Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University