University education in Kenya must open up – it's far too rigid

What you need to know:

  • For many African families, those quick returns come if their child becomes a doctor, lawyer or engineer
  • Straitjacketing students into one exclusive profession in an interdisciplinary world is not wise
  • Without addressing these key issues, universities will undo whatever good the new primary and secondary curriculum may achieve.

According to Gina Yashere, a brilliant British comedian of Nigerian descent, in African families a child has four career choices: doctor, lawyer, engineer or disgrace to the family.

Yashere says that her mum picked a profession for her before she was born. When her mother was pregnant, “Someone went up to her and asked, ‘What are you having?’ She was like, ‘I'm having a doctor.’" And that was it.

When Yashere decided to become a comedian, she immediately slipped abysmally into category four, and thus became a “disgrace to the family.”

Sadly, career choices are rather limited in underdeveloped countries. The more underdeveloped, the less the importance given to passion and talent, which are sacrificed at the altar of economic gains and quick returns.

For many African families, those quick returns come if their child becomes a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Times are changing, however, and career decisions are progressively being untied from the bondage of parents' unfulfilled personal dreams, prestige, social status or financial returns.

It is becoming more common for candidates to focus on talent, passion, ability, and their sense of responsibility.

These changes also place a greater responsibility on educational institutions, and specifically on universities.

University education should be at the forefront of innovation. Universities are supposed to be talent hubs, passion igniters, and university education should be a development pacesetter. It should make the societal box grow bigger so that thinking outside the box becomes the norm.


With great concern, we are hearing plenty of chatter about the new educational system, the proposed reforms, changes in our primary and secondary approach but we hear littl or nothing about reforms in our university education.

What should the expected output of our education system be ? What type of professionals are we looking at? What are the values and strengths of our current graduates? How should we adjust, improve or change them?

Education is not limited to a few years in primary and secondary school, but is a continuum. Education lasts a lifetime, and has a beginning but no end, because today’s education changes the destiny of future generations.

We need to examine educational reforms more deeply and resist the temptation to shallow decisions, which will have an irreversible impact on Kenya’s future.

It's not a matter of adjusting a few things here and there but a matter of life and death for the country’s culture and identity. If we get it wrong now, we will pay for it tomorrow, and the day after.

These reforms will yield no fruit if we do not rethink our university education system. This is a mammoth task which cannot be completed by general or blanket reforms, because each course has its own characteristics, demands and best and worst learning practices


I refuse to believe that in the 21st century, an information technology graduate or undergraduate student should still sit six or seven hours a day just to listen to theory for the sake of meeting a threshold of “contact-hours” determined by regulation, instead of designing new applications and concepts.

It makes no sense to teach commerce through long, boring theoretical sessions, instead of drawing up plans to do real or simulated commerce, create new enterprises, simulate stock markets, mergers, acquisitions, and so on.

I also refuse to believe that a law student can graduate without having stepped into a court of law, a law firm or legal office; without having spoken in public, without having made a presentation, or having read a judgement.

It would be like a doctor who has never touched a corpse or seen blood.

We have a rather rigid university system. Reforms at university education level will necessitate a change in the regulations, more openness, and a desire of to regulate output rather than focusing on the process.

Most universities and university regulators are still stuck on the “à la carte” menu. This menu includes three inflexible courses that a student must "eat".

The approach is “you have chosen this career; these are your subjects and you must take them all to get a degree.”

While this was sensible in the past, today’s life is quite complex. A good lawyer needs to know IT and economics; a good politician should know the law and finances; a good journalist needs to specialise and may need to study medicine, law, sociology or economic subjects.

Straitjacketing students into one exclusive profession in an interdisciplinary world is not wise.


The modern university student should not be rigidly pushed into “à la carte” menu. A student should, rather, be given a buffet of options, a pool of subjects to choose and mix, with proper guidance and mentorship.

This way, students prepare their own menu and come up with wise combinations, without compromising the depth and thoroughness of their own major choice.

It would be so much more relevant for a journalist to graduate with a combined degree on journalism and law or economics; and for a lawyer to get a degree on law and economics, law and IT, and so on.

We can identify three key factors in the rigidity of our university education. The first is superficial, poorly designed regulations that apply in the same way to different courses. For example, when it comes to "contact-hours", our regulations apply to every course, be it jurisprudence, anatomy, coding or calculus.

Second, the laziness of our lecturers, who ought to think outside the box and come up with attractive, innovative ways of delivering the subject in an appealing fashion, for example, making use of alternative aids such as simulation exercises, research and writing, games, etc. This requires commitment.

Uninspired lecturers often teach students. They abuse repetitive teaching aids and learn to read slide after slide of PowerPoint presentations that lack the power to make the point.


Third, greed that has led our universities to fall into the vice of "massification", admitting unmanageable numbers of students and compromising quality education for the sake of short-term financial gain.

This makes it practically impossible to allow students to crossbreed from faculty to faculty. It would be too messy.

Without addressing these key issues, universities will undo whatever good the new primary and secondary curricula may achieve.

So much effort will get lost, and graduates of medicine, law and engineering will slowly by slowly join the rest, to become, according to Yashere, a “disgrace to the family”.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi