Government is wrong on universities

University of Nairobi

University of Nairobi Students block University Way yesterday, protesting plans by the government to increase fees. The students said the government “is stepping on a live wire”.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The binge-drinking yobs and football hooligans are the ones with real integrity, not the broke graduates.

Public universities are set to increase their tuition fees to Sh48,000 per year, up from the Sh16,000 they charge now. At the same time, the government will cut spending on higher education by almost 26 per cent, never mind that this comes at a time when Higher Education Loans Board has reduced the students' loans by almost Sh8,000.

This represents an attack on education and meritocracy. Kenya despises schools, universities, teachers and students. This is encapsulated in the modern day Kenyan refrain – “I would rather have a degree from the university of life.”

The subtext here is that education corrupts and divorces students from the real world, and that there is a greater nobility in ignorance, prejudice and underachievement. The binge-drinking yobs and football hooligans are the ones with real integrity, not the broke graduates.

Some years back, there was a traditional belief that university education should be the preserve of the privileged few. Unjust as it was, this system did at least have the merit of producing treasures like the University of Nairobi, Moi, Kenyatta, Maseno and the rest.

Reducing taxes

For the last 20 years or so, our political ruling class seems to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of ignorance attained by the masses. So some despise good universities as ‘elitist’.

Others see the whole purpose of politics as reducing taxes for well-off people, so that all government money spent on anything – including education – is a waste.

Thinking of this kind has led to the simultaneous expansion and dumbing down of higher education over the past two decades, and to the proliferation of Mickey Mouse courses and institutions. Inevitably, this prioritising of quantity over quality has discredited higher education, and reinforced the popular stereotype of lazy students studying pointless courses.

Increased tuition fees

The government is assuaging students and universities with talk of some of the proceeds from increased tuition fees going to fund the education of students from poorer backgrounds. This rather disproves the other argument, that graduates benefit from getting better-paid jobs.

Of course, everyone knows that a bachelor’s degree is not exactly a ticket to employment opportunities. But if it was true that even with high tuition fees a degree pays for itself, then why would students from poorer backgrounds need bursaries to pay the fees?

The solution to the funding crisis? Cut expenditure on higher education if you have to; reduce the number of bad institutions and courses; reduce the number of places for mediocre students. But do not penalise talent and achievement; do not increase tuition fees for real students studying real courses at real universities.

Karuti Kirimi, Kisumu

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