• The development of higher education in Kenya has been through reforms over the years and at various stages.
• However, a narrative is emerging that vice-chancellors of public universities are hell-bent on opposing the noble initiative.
Last week, the country woke to the shocking news of the sudden death of Prof Gilbert E.M. Ogutu, the University of Nairobi's academic icon.
Prof GEM Ogutu, as he was fondly known by the university, was an illustrious frontline giant of the second-generation academics.
He remained an academic beacon despite the dwindling fortunes of university education in Kenya and Africa at large. He still espoused the principles of the academy as originally intended in the development of education from the Socratic era.
After the departure of professors Joseph Donders and Stephen Neills, Ogutu assumed a central role of leadership in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.
He infused the rigours of logic and occidental approaches to social sciences into African thought. He was more easily the face of Prof Henry Odera-Oruka’s discipleship than the enigmatic Prof Joseph Nyasani.
Academicians are celebrating a resolute scholar who rose from a primary school teacher to a leading professor.
Ogutu's death came at a time when the country is focused on impending university reforms. Reforms have been an ongoing process and the Donders-Neills tenure at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies is illustrative.
The current discussion centres on merging some universities and colleges; not opening more varsities; eliminating some satellite campuses; eliminating redundant courses; raising fees and making varsities responsible for raising more of their own money through commercial research and outreach to alumni.
In 1971, the department was reorganised and Prof Neills assumed the leadership of Religious Studies, while Prof Donders continued to head Philosophy.
Since becoming the Education Cabinet Secretary, Prof George Magoha has initiated a raft of measures to address the challenges facing universities.
The CS, being a surgeon, appears convinced that nothing less than radical surgery can resolve the cancerous mess that is university education.
The reform initiative announced last year is gaining traction, with intense and regular stakeholder engagement forums. However, a narrative is emerging that vice-chancellors of public universities are hell-bent on opposing the noble reform initiative.
The narrative is lately being popularised by the media. It was the subject of a Sunday editorial in a leading mainstream publication. There is not an iota of truth in these assertions.
The development of higher education in Kenya has been through reforms over the years and at various stages. Most, if not all of these reforms were initiated by professors among them, vice-chancellors, who have invited the participation of the political leadership.
The support of the government agencies led by the parent ministry has been responsible for the numerous successes in the higher education sector. The latest reforms were undertaken in 2012 through the review of the various individual universities’ acts and replaced with the Universities’ Act 2012. It is this recent review that led to the unprecedented growth in the number of universities as well as the number of students.
Consequently, the number of academic programmes on offer also increased as the economy diversified to require new areas of study. The economy had emerging frontiers hitherto not prioritised in the local education needs. Sectors such as renewable energy, petroleum and gas, big data analytics, biotechnology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence gained global prominence.
Local universities, therefore, needed to adjust to the realities of the labour market demands. It should also be remembered that the local economy was also experiencing rapid growth occasioned by the Narc victory-led recovery balloon.
The labour industry demanded far more human resource supplies. For example, then Finance Minister David Mwiraria ordered the suspension of supplies officers in all government departments and pushed through Parliament new procurement laws. There was suddenly a huge gap in the availability of qualified procurement officers.
Universities and tertiary institutions responded by developing the necessary curricula for the labour market needs. Sessional Paper No. 1 of 2005 and the attendant Vision 2030 necessitated the elevation of some tertiary institutions to university status, as in the case of the Technical University of Kenya and Dedan Kimathi University of Science and Technology, among others.
Some were also established from scratch such as Bomet and Tom Mboya university colleges. These changes had the integral participation and support of the vice-chancellors and other education stakeholders.
When the Technical University of Kenya was established as the first of its kind, it faced the immediate challenge of professional accreditation. There was no law that governed the regulation and recognition of its flagship Bachelor of Technology in Engineering.
The Engineers Board of Kenya was more accustomed to the traditional course programmes as designed at the University of Nairobi and replicated in Moi, Jkuat, and Egerton. It was again the vice-chancellors — partnering with other stakeholders — who lobbied Parliament to establish the legal framework for the training of engineering technologists. The engineering technologists are now fully recognised as professionals in their fields locally and internationally.
Magoha recently has engaged the vice-chancellors fully and constructively. The process is ongoing and with extensive consultations across the board.
It should be noted that while vice-chancellors provide leadership for higher education, there are many other key players whose contribution is equally important. It is, therefore, unfair for certain quarters to create the impression that vice-chancellors are the impediment to the much-needed reforms.
While universities have traditions, they are the best-known institutions that espouse free exchange of ideas and support progressive efforts of change.
Notably, universities are facing serious challenges not only in Kenya but also globally. However, in our case, vice-chancellors have demonstrated their commitment and are taking the necessary steps within their means to find solutions.
The publicity being churned out about reluctance on their part is baseless and negative. It may serve to sabotage the nobble initiative — instead of rallying the required support.
All Kenyans of goodwill should support the engagements between the CS and the vice-chancellors, who happen to be his academic colleagues anyway.
The country is probably at the opportune moment to undertake these reforms.