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Kenya’s university system needs radical surgery to deliver quality education

Barely had the country dealt with the news of the crisis over engineering courses in universities than it was confronted with another crisis. This time, the Council for Legal Education (CLE) scrapped entire degree programmes, suspended others and gave the rest an ultimatum to shape up or ship out.

The council stopped Moi University, Catholic University of East Africa, Jaramogi Oginga University of Science and Technology and two campuses of the University of Nairobi from offering law degrees, citing inadequate resources and facilities for the course.

Thousands of students have been affected. What the crisis over engineering and law degree courses have demonstrated is that our university system is sickly and the sickness has been left to fester over years, as the Commission for University Education (CUE) and the regulatory and accreditation bodies for professional courses slept on the job.

This is abdication of responsibility that has wreaked havoc on thousands of young lives. The focus now should be on how to fix the crisis of quality in universities.

The first step: All regulatory and accreditation bodies for professional courses must immediately undertake a comprehensive audit of all universities offering the courses they regulate. It is time to do a radical surgery and clean up the university system before the rot goes any deeper.

The exercise that was started by the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) and followed up by CLE must now be undertaken by all regulators of professions urgently. CUE must cooperate in this exercise.

This audit should not just be confined to ‘professional’ courses. The rapid expansion in university education and the race to the bottom as universities seek to attract ever higher enrolment has seen courses sliced into bits and units of degrees offered as full degrees.

This has resulted into churning out of half-baked graduates—with no capacity for critical analysis required of graduates or enough academic depth to impress employers. It is really of no use for CUE to keep telling regulators to stay off universities and let them teach and await the students after they finish their courses.

Yet, those very students will not be accredited by the professional bodies if the courses they take are not recognised. Students must only register for courses that have been cleared by the respective regulatory bodies.

All degrees must have enough rigour to pass muster as academic pursuits at the university. There is need to reestablish sanity in the university system. The headlong dash by parents towards acquiring a university degree by their children is misguided. For the country to tolerate this state of affairs is disastrous.

Kenyans must accept that not everyone is degree material. Universities are ivory towers of knowledge and the access to those towers is through academic excellence. Self-respecting universities must lock out students who have not attained minimum grades for courses even if they have capacity to pay.

It is not basic education; it needs not be mandatory! The question then is where the huge numbers who are not eligible for university education will go. Kenya made a tragic strategic blunder by swallowing up the middle-level colleges and replacing them with universities.

What has now happened is that parents are stuck with what to do with their children after Form Four, as choices for pursuit of further education only seems available at university level.

Of course, the fact that university campuses have opened up in almost every urban area, irrespective of quality of teaching, makes the pursuit of university education the preferred choice. This must be reversed urgently. Once the radical surgery is undertaken, most universities will find themselves with a lot of excess capacity.

This can be used to rapidly reinstall the middle-level college system. The government should also declare a five-year moratorium on university registration, but encourage investment both by private investors and the Ministry of Education (MoE) in middle-level colleges.

Indeed, it should be an immediate priority to reinstate the three national polytechnics in Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret that trained a huge bulk of the country’s middle-level expertise.

The ministry must make career guidance in schools mandatory. Students need to be advised on what their choices for tertiary education are based on their academic strengths and the available courses out there.

It is no use having a student undergo a degree course in tourism only to come out and join the hordes of unemployable graduates on the streets when the same student could have registered for a diploma at Utalii College for skills that make them attractive to employers in the hospitality industry.

Parents also need to start aligning the courses they send their children to undertake at tertiary level with possibilities of employment. This mentality of a degree for a degree’s sake must end.

The ferment that has been caused by the crisis in engineering and law courses in universities provides a very good opportunity to recalibrate and reorient the country’s tertiary education system. The mandarins at the MoE need to seize this opportunity and do what is necessary. [email protected]

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