HIGHER EDUCATION

VICTOR ONGOMA: Appoint CEOs as vice chancellors

In Summary
  • Suitable quality education, just like any other form of sustainability, calls for proper planning and execution of the plans
  • This is not happening in the Kenyan education system owing to limited resources, mainly finance

I can confidently say that Kenyan education is relevant but of unsustainable quality.

Institutions of higher learning are very important in a society. The value of these institutions can’t be understated, especially during this time that not only Kenya but the whole world is challenged by unprecedented events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, urban challenges, and corruption.

Kenya has more than 30 government-funded public universities and nearly the same number of private universities, settling a path for the realisation of higher learning. Where are the benefits?

The benefits of setting up universities are evident countrywide. It is common to see a dead town roar back to life upon establishment of a university in its vicinity.

This is a clear indicator that the university is a socioeconomic magnet in our community. Unfortunately, very few universities, if any, have reached their full potential. What is wrong?

Our institutions of higher learning have been in the headlines for troubling reasons in the recent past. The common issues are fee hikes, leadership wrangles for both students and staff, and unfulfilled collective bargaining agreements.

Other than these, some universities are troubled by lack of essentials such as water, student accommodation, means of transport and insecurity. The list is endless depending on the university that you have in mind.

I would like to summarise all these problems into one, leadership. The leadership herein does not start and end with the university council, and vice chancellor and their teams but it extends to the Ministry of Education and the Commission for University Education.

Why leadership? In one way or another, nearly all problems that our universities are facing can be traced back to poor leadership.

It is evident that universities are in the race to specialise in everything, ending up with nothing.

The vision of CUE as stated on the institution's website is ‘Accessible, relevant and sustainable quality university education'. I can confidently say that Kenyan education is relevant but of unsustainable quality. On the other hand, I am not sure of its accessibility but I guess that it is, given the mushrooming of universities and colleges in every town across the country.

It is thus imperative to look into ‘sustainable quality’ of education with a view of offering solutions. Suitable quality education, just like any other form of sustainability, calls for proper planning and execution of the plans. This is not happening in the Kenyan education system owing to limited resources, mainly finance.

It is undeniable that public universities are among the richest parastatals in Kenya. My argument is based on non-monetary resources at their disposal, examples being manpower, tracts of land and market for goods and services. If this is the case, the universities ought to make good use of such resources to generate money that can meet their needs.

Despite cash crunch being a big issue in universities today, I still emphasise that all this is happening due to poor leadership. I am sure that a good question that every university leader will want an answer up to this stage is, “How do the three factors that I have mentioned here sustain a university financially?”

In the process of addressing the financial crises in universities, I would like to point out that CUE may have failed in the approval of the ‘new crop’ of universities, and university programmes.

I am in agreement that nearly all programmes offered in Kenyan universities are relevant. However, the failure here is on regulation of programmes that help the various universities to realise their vision.

When did the rain start beating our universities in the context of programmes they offer? In my view, this happened when ‘Module II’ was the cash cow in universities. All universities moved swiftly to develop courses in business, hospitality, humanities and education among others to have a bite of the cake.

It is true that every university is established with a vision. However, the universities tend to drift away from their vision in an effort to net as many students as possible, collecting maximum tuition fees.

For instance, the vision of Murang’a University Technology (https://www.mut.ac.ke/) is ‘A Leading University in Technological Innovation, Research, and Training’, very promising. However, a closer look at its programmes paints a totally different picture of what it professes.

For instance, the university prides itself on a School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and School of Humanities and Social Sciences. The question is, how do the two schools fall under ‘technology’ and by extension help to realise the university’s vision?

It is evident that universities are in the race to specialise in everything, ending up with nothing.

When did the rain start beating our universities in the context of programmes they offer?

In my view, this happened when ‘Module II’ was the cash cow in universities. All universities moved swiftly to develop courses in business, hospitality, humanities and education among others to have a bite of the cake.

Further, the universities set up campuses in many small towns across the country to endear themselves to potential students, most of whom were working class. This was unstainable in two ways: The quality of education was compromised and it proved to be uneconomical in the long run.

The outcome was evident, with cases of some campuses being run and students being taught by unqualified staff. This prompted the Education ministry to move in to stop and in some cases reverse the ‘progress’ made by the universities.

The ministry and CUE should not yield to any pressure to set up universities that lack a clear vision, and mechanisms to provide quality sustainable services.

Is it time that we considered appointing CEOs as vice chancellors?

It is important to reemphasise this because I was surprised to see a group of professionals from some parts of the country holding a press conference a few weeks ago to advocate the establishment of a university ‘of their own’ in their backyard.

How can the financial crises in public universities be addressed by the universities themselves? A sound university leadership supported by all stakeholders in education can set up mega sustainable projects not only to help them realise their vision but as income ventures.

An example is in universities that are centred on agriculture, with big chunks of land. The question is, why can’t they establish modern agricultural farms to not only aid learning but to create jobs and generate income?

This can happen, supported by farms tools and equipment bought from a workshop in an agricultural-related university such as Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (http://www.jkuat.ac.ke/).

The same applies to universities that offer medical courses. They can set up hospitals and offer quality services to the public. I will be happy, for instance, to see a fully functional national hospital in Kakamega owned and run by Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology's (http://www.mmust.ac.ke/) School of Medicine.

Can you envision how appealing and successful the biggest tourist resort in the country would be if it was being managed by Maasai Mara University's (https://www.mmarau.ac.ke/) School of Natural Resources, Tourism and Hospitality?

If you agree with me, then the university should not be competing with the University of Nairobi in offering ‘Pure, Applied and Health Sciences’.

Is this the way to go? If yes, is it time that we considered appointing CEOs as vice chancellors?

Victor Ongoma, PhD  

Assistant Professor of Climate Change Adaptation, Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco