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Thursday, 5 September 2013

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Does Kenya Have World Class Universities?

The proposed law on higher education comes at a time expansion of tertiary education is in disarray from market-type competition for students.
One of three drafted Bills seeks to consolidate disparate statutes into one law that would enable the Commission of Higher Education to provide leadership in governance of universities and other tertiary institutions.
Currently, each of the seven public universities operates under its own Act of Parliament.
But amid efforts to increase their finances, following the Government cut down on expenditure on higher education, universities debunked their original missions and set on a trail of establishing degrees without planning. On the new menu were classroom-based degrees; imitations of courses offered in commercial colleges.
According to Dr Carrol Bidemi, an expert on expansion of higher education in East Africa, most of the new undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, popularly described as market-driven, are merely vocational courses.
Reduced to colleges
“Some of the courses have reduced universities into colleges that provide short-term job training,” says Bidemi.
Besides, to become competitive, some universities have shown great appetite for establishing new faculties without the necessary resources. Plans by Kenyatta University to start faculties of medicine and engineering fall in that category.
Some public universities had even embarked on setting up their own admission criteria that included recruiting students who had not attained the average grade of C+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. In Kenya, a C+ in the KCSE or two A-Level passes are the minimum entry points to the university.
An aerial view of University of Nairobi. [PHOTOS: FILE/ STANDARD]
The issue is that university education builds on the level of competence, knowledge and skills normally acquired in secondary education.
By introducing low admission criteria, the universities are ruining their reputations as citadels of quality education.
However, the heat is on for tertiary education to move beyond the historical development, where universities set rules on how they educated their students, trained their staff, established libraries and stored cultural artefacts.
“International pressure, as a result of global flows of funding, ideas, students and staff have forced universities to re-examine their missions,” says Justin Lin, World Bank Chief Economist.
Commenting in a recent World Bank report, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, Lin argued countries are no longer comfortable with developing tertiary education systems just to serve their local or national communities.
Other nations
“World-class universities are points of pride and comparison among nations that view their status in relation to other nations,” says Lin who is also the World Bank senior vice-president.
Nevertheless, top-class universities are modern-day powerhouses of excellence in research and scholarship.
The realisation the local universities have gone astray and were on the road to destruction is expressed by the little research output from those institutions. It is also signified by the dwindling of concentration of PhD scholars and talent in almost all academic fields.
Best ranked
Whereas Strathmore University and the University of Nairobi are the best-ranked universities, they are far from being world-class institutions.
Becoming a world-class university is not simply improving the quality of learning, but developing capacity to compete in the global tertiary market through acquisition, adaptation and creation of advanced knowledge.
However, a world-class university is characterised by the ability to attract talent in terms of students, staff and researchers.
“Such a status is not achieved by self-declaration but conferred by the outside world on the basis of international recognition,” says Dr Jamil Salmi, the co-ordinator of higher education at the World Bank.
In addition to a high concentration of talented students and teaching staff, top universities require abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment.
There is also need for favourable governance features that encourage strategic vision, innovation and limited bureaucratic management of resources.
Locally, it is not enough for the Government to unify the law and expect universities under the Commission for Higher Education to transform themselves into first-rate institutions.
Establishment of the new law should only be the start of a process that will eventually translate the tattered institutions into engines of development.
Besides the new law, the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology in collaboration with the Commission for Higher Education should develop a strategic plan regarding what type of universities Kenya wants.
Identify mission
Dr Salmi says the strategy should identify mission statements, admissions criteria, accreditations and ranking.
Although ranking of schools is controversial in Kenya, ranking of the universities locally can be used to stimulate a culture of quality. In many countries, students and other consumers use ranking to identify and access the best universities.
The World Bank report says university rankings are widespread and unlikely to disappear as they define what the best universities are to the global audience.
“They cannot be ignored by anyone interested in measuring and improving the performance of tertiary education institutions,” says the report.
So far, it is not clear what policies the Government intends to put in place towards transforming the higher education sub-sector.
But another factor that cannot be ignored is the establishment of a dedicated leadership team at the Commission for Higher Education.
At the moment, the Commission is understaffed and has no capacity to undertake increased inspection roles.
For instance, it has no staff to evaluate the quality of some of the degrees and courses introduced in the universities.


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