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We can no longer ignore paucity of quality in education our varsities offer

Recent events in our public and private universities have demonstrated the institutions can no longer ignore the growing crisis of professional standards and worrying decline in the quality of academic programmes they offer. Two events have brought this to the fore most powerfully.

The first is the ongoing crisis over engineering courses that universities have insisted on offering despite them not being accredited by the profession regulator, the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK). After years of dithering, EBK has finally put its foot down, forcing universities to stop teaching courses not yet accredited.

For years, universities have been ripping off unsuspecting parents, offering engineering degrees that were a dead end for students. It’s so scandalous. As a consequence, thousands of unemployable engineering graduates are on the streets despite years of back breaking work.

Thousands of students have been sent home and engineering beginners stopped from reporting. This is a crisis that will take many years to resolve. The second is the suspension of medical academic programmes offered by a university in Rwanda with the university education regulator suspending them over quality assurance.

Further, in Kenya, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) has refused to register 13 pharmacy graduates from the said university, saying they did not meet the required qualifications. Paul Mwaniki, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya, was quoted as saying the Board has had issues with the university in the past.

And yet, the university continues to register students every year in the courses despite such drastic action against their graduates. Somebody is sleeping on their job. What is the problem with university education in Kenya today? The first is unbridled expansion. In the blind pursuit of numbers to cash in on the thirst for university education, nothing has been spared.

Most towns in Kenya now have several university campuses, pitching tent in any available premise, most poorly suited to learning at this level. Secondly, universities are making little or no investment in faculty, because it is time consuming and expensive. Most are obsessed with investing in buildings.

The few lecturers going round regurgitating dog-eared notes in the name of teaching are becoming increasingly obsolete as Kenya powers to a high technology environment. They do no research, no publishing and no furthering of academic qualifications. They are functional illiterates and doing their students no good. Standards of teaching are dismal.

Declining standards Thirdly, is diluted courses. To attract as many students as possible at the lowest possible threshold, universities have split degree courses and now offer majors as full degrees. The final product is so dilute it is not competitive in any job market. That’s why a certain apartheid is creeping into the job market where employers are looking at graduates of certain universities with a  jaundiced eye.

Fourth, is the complete collapse of university regulation. Universities are operating in a laissez faire environment, where the only motivation is how they can attract and squeeze more students into lecture halls.  All these shenanigans are being undertaken as the university regulator, the Commission for University Education (CUE) seemingly watches unconcerned.

And instead of cooperating with regulators of the various professions, CUE wants them to leave universities alone to offer what they want. Classical case of denial and misplaced hubris. What has been the impact? There has been a shocking decline of university standards in Kenya. Our universities are in the doldrums, unable to compete with others globally.

The news that out of the top 900 universities in the world, only University of Nairobi managed to squeeze in at a miserable position 700 should jolt the country’s education policy makers from their complacency and self-delusion. Even more shocking is that University of Dar es Salaam and Makerere University are ranked higher than University of Nairobi.

Tanzania is Kenya’s poor neighbour, while Uganda underwent turmoil for almost two decades. These are the consequences of a regulator in deep slumber, and a completely rudderless university system. There is also a rising cry by employers about the poor literacy, numeracy and communication skills among graduates.

They have hardly any capacity for critical thinking and analysis, and are completely disjointed (no focus). The biggest losers are parents and students who are paying for bogus degrees—a wasted investment—with learners becoming unemployable. The problem is not the economy and it is going to get worse unless it is addressed immediately.

The Ministry of Education and the CUE must take immediate steps to arrest what is a runaway situation. Realign the university system to reflect the current needs of the job market. It is a complete failure of policy that thousands of jobs in critical sectors like engineers, architects, doctors, masons, draughtsmen, radiology technicians among others are in severe shortage, while the country is awash with liberal arts graduates who are facing headwinds in securing jobs.

Directionless system The government must impose a moratorium on further registration of universities and awarding of charters. Give the existing ones five years to put their act together in terms of faculty, investment in pursuits such as research, rigour in academics complete with external oversight and audits of the adequacy of their degrees.

Those unable to make the grade must either be closed or merged with others. Vision 2030 will not be achieved with a miserable varsity system. Finally, the government must compensate the thousands of students who have been rejected by the country’s professional bodies because they studied for degrees that were either not accredited, or whom universities registered despite not reaching thresholds for those courses.

The government sat by as universities took money from these students and wasted four years of their life, and consigned them to a nether world where their degrees are meaningless. Somebody must be held accountable and Government must take responsibility.  [email protected]

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