The trouble with our varsities and how to sort them

Among Kenya’s development challenges, none are more pressing than its social and economic travails.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports Kenya’s human development index value as 0.493, showing Kenyans as having low human development (this is assessed according to longevity, access to knowledge and standard of living).

According to UNDP poverty indicators, 60 per cent of the population suffers from multiple deprivations associated with poverty (in education and health) and 20 per cent of Kenyans live on less than $1.25 (Sh130) a day.

Despite these development challenges, Kenya has a growing higher education sector. The number of students in universities has risen exponentially, up 31 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014.

Today, there are 10 more universities in the country than there were four years ago (68 compared to 58).

The number of public universities tripled in 2013 (from seven to 22) after the government upgraded 15 university colleges into full-fledged institutions but the requisite infrastructure and human resource has never been provided, resulting in undue pressure on the existing facilities and personnel.

The latest government data shows that public and private universities in the country combined enrolled 506,083 students in 2015. This compares to 2014’s 443,783 students and is more than double the enrolment in 2013.

Recent university rankings generally show that Kenyan universities – save for the two oldest – are performing poorly.

Other than research, ranking takes into account the teacher-student ratio, proportion of international faculty members in relation to local staff, and the number of international students.

Other criteria used include universities’ research outputs and general contribution to new knowledge; levels of training and application of science and technology; presence on the internet and use of Information and Communication Technologies; volume of published material on the web; visibility and impact of the universities’ web pages as measured by the citations (site visits) or links they receive (inlinks); perceived quality; institutional statistics; websites and surveys of students, scholars or employers to make comparisons between institutions; the number of Nobel and Fields Medal winners; articles published in Nature and Science; articles in citation indexes; and academic performance with respect to the size of an institution.

The above issues present a worrisome situation for us all at the university considering that we have an avoidable leverage on the economic well-being of the country.

The UN Development Index ranks Kenya as the second most ‘unequal’ country in East Africa, after Rwanda. Ostensibly, there are fears that this inequality will encourage the increasing numbers of the country’s half-baked graduates, dissatisfied and often-unemployed, to radicalisation, and even violence.

There are a number of important challenges facing universities in Kenya. These include the demand for access and social equity, funding and the cost to students, governance and internal management, the changing roles of academics, demographic changes among academics, inefficiency, and ethnicity.

The growth in enrolment has resulted in a situation where in many universities in the country, physical facilities cannot cope with the number of students.


Libraries are overcrowded, books are outdated, journal holdings lag years behind, laboratories and equipment are outdated and inadequate, rooms in hostels are overcrowded, and academic staff are not compensated appropriately.

In addition, massification; overcrowding; ever-growing demand; erosion of technical colleges due to acquisitions and takeovers by public universities in search of space; insufficient/declining public funding; curricula that are not responsive to modern-day needs of the labour market; declining quality; crumbling infrastructure; poor governance; rigid management structures pose major challenges to the provision of quality education in our universities.

This perhaps explains why universities offering professional courses are under siege from professional bodies’ standard criteria that at times assume more than utopian circumstances in our struggling institutions.

Universities in Kenya are facing threatening financial constraints. The main causes for this include: (1) pressures of massification that require expansion to cater for the large increase in student numbers (as evident from the demand, it can be expected that this situation will deteriorate further); (2) economic problems faced by our country arising out of insecurity and the subsequent decline of some sectors in the economy; (3) a changed fiscal climate induced by the policies of multilateral lending agencies; (4) inability of students to afford the tuition required for financial stability (5) misallocation and poor use of available financial resources by some of the universities.


In addition, the number of academic staff in Kenyan universities has not kept pace with the increasing student population; the situation has deteriorated to a point where the balance between productivity gains and the quality of teaching is under threat.

The student-to-lecturer ratio in the universities has deteriorated from 25:1 in 1986 to 52:1 in 2013. This, of course, has strong implications for quality of lecturer interaction with students as well as concerns about overall teaching–learning process.

The issue of brain-drain has also played a part in the current crisis. In Kenya alone, the World Bank reports that nearly 40 per cent of the country’s highly skilled professionals emigrate to rich countries.

The migration of the highly skilled cadre of academic professionals and students has led to an acute shortage of academics in Kenya’s universities, especially in key fields such as science and engineering.

The number of non-academic (support) staff is excessive in many Kenyan universities, an aspect that is attributed to skewed human resource policies.

In universities, where resources are already scarce, this is viewed as unaffordable in light of other academic needs. Some of our universities suffer in general from poor, inefficient, and highly bureaucratic management systems.

Challenges attributed to scholarly research in most Kenyan universities include the descriptive nature of research and the lack of empirical rigour (in part due to a lack of resources); paucity of cross-disciplinary research endeavours; limited collaborations between practitioners and academics; limited linkage between research and the national development agenda; decreasing state subsidies; shortage of research expertise and experienced supervisors; high subscription costs of scholarly journals; limited publishing infrastructure; lack of incentives for researchers; inadequate mentoring frameworks; and weak or non-existent partnerships.


Moreover, research done in Kenyan universities tends to focus on local or national development issues by putting an emphasis on applied research at the expense of basic research.

The focus on national or regional issues may mean that research outcomes are generally not widely applicable to international issues.

Inadequately equipped libraries exacerbate this, with limited access to modern journals and the internet. Neither doctoral students nor their local faculty supervisors are likely to have access to current theoretical and comparative literature that might provide new and valuable insights in their research projects.

In most libraries, books are ancient, unavailable or the pages largely mutilated. University presses are under-funded or non-existent, and university journals are either few or unavailable.

Due to inadequate experience and the lack of contacts, young faculty find it difficult to publish in international journals. Consequently, dissertations end up being stacked in libraries, leading to inbreeding.

Indeed, a recent World Bank report makes this point strongly by admitting: “Sub-Saharan Africa is at the bottom of almost every knowledge economy indicator.

For instance, it contributes 0.07 per cent of global patents applications, an indication of the continent’s technological leadership. The region has the lowest researcher-to-population ratio in the world with less than 100 researchers per million inhabitants compared to about 700 in North Africa, for example”

It thus signals a long way to go to create the foundation for high-quality research, graduate education, and knowledge creation in our universities in Kenya.

As a measure towards survival and sustainability, universities in Kenya have shifted from the public-good paradigm, primarily concerned with national development pervasive in the literature on higher education, to a market model that engages the neoliberal ideal of development, one in which the economic survival of the institution becomes paramount.

Module II programmes have been a boon for universities in Kenya by increasing funding for and broadened access to university goods and services to consumers.

Additionally, the Module II service has opened up access to students previously unable to obtain post-secondary education at public institutions. Indeed it is noted that Module II revenue has engendered enhancements for the institutions, expanding their ability to provide services.

Moreover, this marketisation has enabled the institutions to retain and attract qualified staff by providing opportunities for ancillary income as an incentive.

The flip side to the Module II initiative is when prudent and frugal management and utilisation of the resources in a given institution is wanting.

The massification phenomenon then becomes a burden due to limited facilities and requisite human resource. The quality of the instruction is hampered and the desired outcomes of the learning processes as well the impact of the graduates in society becomes insignificant in measure.


It is encouraging to note that most universities in Kenya like the rest in the world are now thinking strategically by developing strategic plans and mission statements that aspire to produce highly skilled and globally competitive graduates functional in the knowledge economy; relate curriculum to labour demand; reconstruct the curriculum to meet Kenyan needs; support critical, basic research, theory building, experimentation and teaching; deal with emerging issues; lead in social transformation rather than act as conservative or elitist institutions; forge links with industry and government to become more innovative and relevant to society; and participate in or form part of government policy making organs.

The creation of the Commission for University Education has made a remarkable difference in terms of the quality of teaching, programmes and facilities particularly in the public universities.

For Kenya to accelerate its development and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the government will have to increase its investment in science and technology at the universities and in turn demand prudent management of resources.

Expenditure on research and development will have to be increased to at least 1 per cent of GDP by 2020. The challenges that face Kenyan universities are serious, but there are certainly opportunities, and with appropriate research and creative effort, a long and bright future could be waiting for the Kenyan higher education.

Sources Daily Nation -Laban Peter Ayiro -1 | Saturday, October 3, 2015


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