MT Akelo-Misori: Higher education system is ripe for reform

The split of the Education ministry into two is timely: Despite vertical growth over the years, the fabric of our higher education has anything but progressed.

Kenya has more students and institutions of higher learning than ever before, but there is little evidence that the large numbers are driving us towards progress. What is evident is proof of institutionalised rot, apathy and indifference to the problem our tertiary school system has become.

The Kenya Union of Post-Primary Teachers (Kuppet) thanks President Kibaki for the new Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology and welcomes the posting of Dr Sally Kosgei, an intellectual, alumni of Stanford University and tenacious public servant, as minister.

A daunting task awaits Kosgei, so an appropriate appreciation of the challenges of this post will be necessary to creating conditions for the country’s economic take-off.

With more than half the population living below the poverty line, unofficial estimates put the unemployment rate at above 40 per cent, and many listed jobs in this country do not qualify as such. The disconnect between our fabled human resource base and the poverty profiles is an indictment of the low technological power of our work-force and an education system that puts premium on quantity.

Over the last 18 years of multi-party politics, Kenya has upgraded four colleges to full university status and increased private ones three-fold. Since 1990, only an additional 3,000 regular students get admission to public universities annually. At the University of Nairobi, more parallel than regular students have been admitted since 2006, the first and thus far the only public university with that dubious distinction. Meanwhile none of the colleges has announced any breakthrough in technology or medicine.

This new ministry should focus the access, quality, financing and technological challenges of the modern university. At once it should reduce the influence of a bureaucracy at Jogoo House, whose focus for decades has been on basic education and mass production of papers.

The need for new wine at Jogoo House is proven in the bureaucrats’ contentment with free primary education, a utility foisted on Kenya by international conventions and, more significantly, funded by donors. The lack of clear policy on research, academic-industrial collaboration or a flagship product by any university is a clear statement of stagnation and fatigue that will continue to impede the realisation of Vision 2030.

Dr Kosgei, therefore, must move swiftly to reclaim the primacy of higher education and research in our human resource development. This must begin with decommoditising the service which Government left to market forces with heavy consequences to quality and innovation. As all universities crave to offer all courses and education is commoditised, quality is the loser as institutions escalate economic inequalities in society.

Specialisation, long a cherished trigger of perfection, has received a beating as commercialisation of education distorts development goals; some courses are shirked as ‘unmarketable’ while others are hyped and overpriced. The status quo deludes public institutions that autonomy constitutes immunity from national goals. They thus can kill whole departments and enroll thousands of foreigners while denying deserving Kenyans opportunity to scholarship. Likewise, private colleges should know that charters are Government documents that can be recalled if and when mediocrity manifests itself.

If Kosgei is interested she will find resource in the reports that have prescribed regulation of cost-sharing in education. A policy that excludes or includes students on financial basis is no policy. And university education without research is not worth its name.

The minister needs to harness cooperation between academia and business.

She should explore radical means of fundraising including the possibility of a higher education tax to cushion institutions from commercialisation.

Lastly, Kosgei comes to Jogoo House at a historic moment. Kenya is experimenting with new ideas and our development partners have never been so kindhearted.

Either she can tread the path of her timid predecessors; leave no mark of her tenure and blame the system. Or she can chart a new path and make history.

The writer is the national chairman of Kenya Union of Post-Primary Teachers

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