Kenya must keep investing in university education

A university graduate.

University education and specialised college training still remain quite relevant today.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • All kinds of experts have vouched for TVETs, suggesting that universities are expensive but have little returns.
  • However, politicians on the campaign trail are promising that they will support affordable and universally accessible education all the way from kindergarten to university.

One of President Uhuru Kenyatta's last tasks has been the elevation of Kaimosi University College into a full university.

Word out there is that he might give charters to other university colleges.

This is surprising considering that in the past five years, his government has been mulling closing down some of the university colleges or even merging universities.

On the one hand, there has been the push to have each county or a set of counties have a ‘home’ university, on the other, there has been the urging to invest more in technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVETs).

All kinds of experts have vouched for TVETs, suggesting that universities are expensive but have little returns.

However, politicians on the campaign trail are promising that they will support affordable and universally accessible education all the way from kindergarten to university.

One prays that they will actually invest more in university education. Indeed, the outgoing government has prided itself in what it has called a 100 per cent transition between primary and secondary schools.

Well, this is a laudable effort. But it is difficult to keep all the children who transition from primary to high school in school.

Why? Because, even though the tuition fee may be heavily subsidised, schools often cleverly create other expenses.

This is a challenge that seriously undermines the noble ideal of guaranteeing that all elementary and high schoolgoers complete their schooling.


Still, the transition from high school to tertiary and university levels is a different problem altogether.

College and university education is expensive and is often only accessible to a small number of people.

This is one accusation levelled at higher education. However, even the cost of tertiary education tends to lock out many people who desire to learn a skill.

Nevertheless, university education and specialised college training remain quite relevant today.

Artificial Intelligence may soon make some skills obsolete but in their stead, new ones will emerge.

Robots may replace human beings but only in some jobs.

Talk of AI and robots may be a current and exciting subject in some parts of Europe, America and Asia, but it really remains in the shadows in Africa. 

Africa significantly lags behind in technical skills and knowledge.

In fact, Sub-Sahara Africa has literacy rates well below 70 per cent compared to Asia which is above 70 per cent and 90 per cent for the developed world.

Thus, it makes sense to significantly invest in elementary and high school education.

Skills gap

However, Africa is way behind the rest of the world with a skills gap below 35 per cent.

What these two statistics show is that Africans are not acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills in school.

One of the reasons for these lags is that there isn’t enough relevant research being done in universities in Africa.

There is also little or no linkage between the research being done and the real world.

For instance, much of the research done in schools of education or business doesn’t really have a practical impact on schools and businesses.

African universities do a lot more teaching than research, and where there is serious research, most of it hardly ends up in the policy. Why?

Because African universities are generally hampered by several problems, as Pedro Uetela highlights in Higher Education and Development in Africa (Palgrave Macmillan).

African universities struggle with their historical identity. They were established primarily to produce an elite that would be socialised into government offices and businesses as the colonial rulers departed Africa.

They have generally travelled this path, often unable to plan for the future and the changes happening around them.

This is why African universities have largely depended on funding from the state.

So, when the government of the day, for one reason or the other, reduces funding to the university, the administrators would naturally rush into cost-cutting measures or increasing fees.

Yet, in most cases, the administrators are appointed through a process that has political connotations.

Members of the administrative staff may also be appointed through political influence.

Yet, these individuals are expected to manage both an administrative process and academics.

Increasing school fees is generally an unpopular act, anywhere in the world. How should university administrators address this difficulty?


What linkages are there between higher education and development?

Uetela shows that this is a moot point. He argues that although development is a contested idea, it is safer to argue that modernity is premised on some kind of progress.

But modernity was founded on advancement in ken and skills.

If a university education is a transmitter of knowledge and skills, then it adds to development.

However, for Africa, the relationship between higher education and development is complicated.

Why? Because African countries have often been forced into accepting development programs by international financial institutions such as the IMF that are the very antithesis of higher education.

Indeed, it is not surprising that the intensified promotion of TVETs in Kenya in the recent past was immediately followed by prescriptions to disinvest in universities and restructure them.

But what exactly is the restructuring of universities? Is it rejigging their governance and operations?

Is it increasing fees to match those of private institutions? Is it withdrawing state subsidies?

Is it increasing the workload of teaching staff in order to reduce or stop employing new staff?

Restructuring universities in Africa has often meant cost-cutting but without increasing fees, which seriously affects service delivery to students.

With less funding, there is overcrowding in the lecture halls. Lecturers are forced to teach hundreds of learners in lecture halls with little or no teaching and learning equipment.

Direct engagement

In such a case there is little or no direct engagement between the teacher and student beyond the class.

Consequently, there is little chance that such a lecturer would be able to do academic research.

She simply has no time between teaching, assessing essays and supervising graduate students to even write a research proposal, let alone a funding proposal.

Lack of research simply means that there is little or no reflection on the knowledge and skills that are being passed on to the learners.

No wonder there are always accusations that African lecturers teach using ‘yellow notes.’

It is not difficult then to see the supposed disconnect between African universities and development.

There are other difficulties that Uetela shows hamper African universities from properly contributing to economic growth, including the challenges to offering lifelong education (which makes education an ongoing process), poor investment in ICTs (which, for instance, would make online teaching easier and accessible to more students), restructuring the curricula (to renew it and make it relevant to the needs of the day), weak pre-university foundation studies (to address the problem of learners who arrive at university without critical thinking and research skills), lack of staff retraining (or even sabbatical leave to research and work in a new environment), and cost of higher education, among others.

Nevertheless, African universities have been vital in training human resources that have been critical to progress in many parts of the continent.

Even under difficult conditions (including poaching of some of their best-trained staff), these universities have provided teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, economists, journalists, and artists, among many other professionals, who have helped their countries to join progress, even if relatively.

Thus, can Kenya or Africa really afford to disinvest in higher education as it is often advised by foreign organisations?

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]