We killed varsities at the altar of profits, but we can still resuscitate them

Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) officials when they issued a strike notice.

Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) officials when they issued a strike notice on August 20, 2021, at the Meridian Hotel. The financial woes facing the government may put the last nail in the coffin of universities. And it will have been a long, slow death.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The financial woes facing the government may put the last nail in the coffin of universities. And it will have been a long, slow death.

Many of the problems facing public universities today may seem to be recently minted, but the seeds of the decline were planted in the 1980s. 

Over the years, higher education policies have been implemented without rhyme or reason, many for political expediency. Here is a step-by-step guide to the death march for higher education institutions. 

First, we allowed the uncontrolled expansion of university education. When universities turn every cowshed and shop in far-flung hamlets into satellite campuses without commensurate infrastructure and human resources, the first casualty is quality.

The student–teacher ratio in university departments is still disproportionate, with lecturers teaching as many as 300 students.

But then, ours is a cultural obsession with quantity. Our preoccupation with the ‘hardware’ rather than the ‘software’ of learning borders on collective mental sickness. 

The software is about quality management. It is about repair and maintenance, monitoring and evaluation. The software is the basis of socio-economic development. As the inventor of the iPhone, Steve Jobs, once said, it is not how it looks (hardware), it’s rather how it works (software).

Secondly, after the uncontrolled expansion of universities, we turned these institutions into profit-making entities. 

While the IMF had a hand in pushing the government into requiring universities to self-sustain, successive governments are to blame for pushing the institutions down the profit path.

In the context of unbridled capitalism, the so-called state capture and attendant corruption opened the floodgates. Inevitably, it became a free-for-all. 

Thirdly, with universities chasing the coin in every way, it was only a matter of time before they became ‘degree factories’. We are graduating young people who cannot write a coherent CV or cover letter. This will become worse with Artificial Intelligent models like ChatGPT, which can be used to write student assignments.

You start seeing 'degree pushing’, because the universities no longer have the capacity for thorough monitoring and evaluation, and quality is thrown to the dogs. 

We are graduating PhD holders with no mastery of ‘philosophy’, i.e. doctors not equipped with the critical thinking skills and the methods of analysing emerging social issues. They are not philosophers. 

No wonder then that the late Education minister, Prof George Magoha, once alleged that only one out of 10 PhDs might be genuine. 

Kiss of death 

Fourthly, the final kiss of death: The drastic reduction of funding. 

Last month, university workers were paid three weeks late. The only consolation now is that other government employees will not be paid this month or the next.

Pay delays have had a serious impact on lecturers' morale. Students know this. Lecturers are hungry and angry. They teach senior government and private sector officers earning many times more than they do. 

The outcome is continued desecration of the degree and university education. 

Still, all this is not necessarily bad for the university. These institutions can rise from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, ending up much stronger and more relevant to society. 

The competence-based curriculum is one of the answers to the problems facing universities. 

Through CBC, universities should collaborate closely with industries.

The Belgian Business Innovation Board gives the way forward on this.

Above all, government policy needs to ensure a predictable, stable environment for a long-term strategic partnership to succeed. The government is a critical player in facilitating intra-institutional dialogue.

Universities need autonomy to operate effectively. Universities and industries should encourage dialogue between entrepreneurs and academia. This should be based on a clear understanding of the comparative advantages and shared purpose on each side.

Both universities and industries could actively search for partners. The university should continuously expand its understanding of the needs of the industry and link these needs to academically sourced solutions.

Degree programmes should be industry-focused at all academic levels, whatever the subject.

The Belgian institution advises that training must include programmes focusing directly on the human component to raise the capacity of individual researchers and build a critical mass of competent innovators.

Psychology and business 

Initiatives like the Student Training on Entrepreneurship Promotion (Step), an action-oriented mentorship programme, should be embraced. Step combines psychology and business. It trains students to balance between the world of concepts and the brutal reality of business.

Finally, education experts recommend that universities should use their alumni to infuse business culture in training. Alumni are goldmines of ideas from the ‘real’ world. Without drastic measures, we will continue seeing the socio-economic role of universities diminishing, eventually affecting the achievement of our national goals.

Dr Mbataru teaches Public Policy at Kenyatta University; [email protected]