Eminent scholars to be feted as UoN marks 50th anniversary

Prof Stephen Kiama

University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Gitahi Kiama during the interview at his office in Nairobi on October 1, 2020.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Fifty years ago, some departments were run by foreigners but with time, they have been able to get local experts to teach their subject areas.
  • The most significant achievement is the human capacity development.
  • We need to have more money from the government to support research.

 How does the University of Nairobi (UoN) plan to celebrate its 50 years of existence?

This year, the university marks its 50th anniversary. It was inaugurated on December 10, 1970 by President Jomo Kenyatta. The university, however, started off in July of that year when the first vice-chancellor, Josephat Karanja, was appointed. Fifty years is not a short time.

It is a good time to reflect on what has happened and what to do in the future. We have developed a very elaborate programme to ensure the current students (you know not many of them will be there 50 years from now) will remember this for a long time.

We’ve formed a steering committee comprising of the principals of the various colleges and some members of the university senate to coordinate the corporate level activities. We also want the celebrations to cascade down to the faculty, schools, departments and institutes. We also have committees at those levels.

Each department has its unique way to celebrate. Fifty years ago, some departments were run by foreigners but with time, they have been able to get local experts to teach their subject areas. Given the diversity and heterogeneity of the university community, we have just provided the platform, but allowed the freedom for people to identify the best thing they want to celebrate at their level and everybody needs to be involved. We plan to have a bigger celebration on December 10, the date just before the graduation. We shall then release a convocation the next day.

Will you have celebratory activities in the intervening period?

Activities have actually started. All institutes are doing webinars. The Wangari Maathai Institute, the Department of History and Archaeology have already done theirs. We also have the Research Week, which starts from October 12 to 16. We shall identify distinguished scholars we can celebrate - we have a very elaborate criteria to identify them.

They could be here now or have retired. The candidates will be people who have developed significant things, developed and led curricula or thematic areas in the university and nurtured it. We seek scholars whose ideas developed so many people and are serving the country in different capacities.

What should Kenyans expect on December 10?

December 10, will be the peak of the celebrations. We will invite various guests and we also share with Kenyans what the University of Nairobi has achieved over the last 50 years. We will share with the country where we want to see the university moving in the next 50 years.

What achievements would you consider most significant in the history of UoN?

The most significant achievement is the human capacity development. I would not even imagine Kenya without the University of Nairobi... It is at that level. When you look at the Senate, the Supreme Court of Kenya, the Court of Appeal and a big proportion of members of the National Assembly passed through here. We are also proud to have produced many of the vice-chancellors in universities.

We have produced leaders in higher education, policy, legislature, the Judiciary, civil service and CEOs in the private sector. The country is the way it is today because of the contribution of the University of Nairobi. It laid the foundation for Kenya’s development.

Should universities specialise in core courses that they offer?

This is something we must all think over together, and very carefully. There is the issue of the standard and quality of the product. To produce the best, you consider the people who teach that person and the availability of resources for training. It is a huge investment. We need many doctors and engineers but number alone is not enough.

Will the graduates be able to do what they are expected to and at the level of expectation? It is, obviously, important to expand because we don’t have adequate numbers but it must be informed by the resources because the initial investment is heavy.

The government must invest according to the changes in the market and technology. Instead of starting new universities and programmes, there is need to invest more or upgrade the existing ones.

It is good for the country to start thinking about centres of excellence at the university level rather than duplicating programmes, which is a more expensive route. We can increase the number, but we have standardisation of the training. We must invest in those centres of excellence.

What opportunities did UoN miss in its growth path?

When the university was started locally, there was a dilemma over how to get our own experts, and the issue of access to education and community service. Acquiring an education was individualised.

I think we needed to walk with the community whose problems we sought to solve. We missed that opportunity to show the value of the university. That opportunity to be embedded to the community was missed. The universities are now,  sort of,  disconnected from their aspirations. We must have an honest discussion to put more energy in intangible assets. Research findings should go to the community to solve problem and not to gather dust on shelves in the library, or for promotion.

University of Nairobi is ranked top in Kenya and among the top ten in Africa, but many places down globally. What should Kenyan universities do to achieve better ranking?

We need to do much more in the area of research. The universities ranked ahead of us are in South Africa and Egypt. The governments of those countries have invested in research but here we have people doing research using their own money for their personal benefit or promotion. This is not connected to the national needs. We need to have more money from the government to support research. The scoring in the ranking is through excellence in research.

How will the new funding formula for universities impact on UoN?

The government introduced the differentiated unit cost for financing universities where students of some courses get more than others. Before then, the government was financing universities based on the enrolment but this has since changed. The formula only caters for undergraduate students but ignores Master’s and PhD students. The UoN has ended up being hugely underfunded because of its many overheads in its eleven campuses. We only receive about 30 per cent of our budget of about Sh18 billion. We receive only Sh5 billion. Given the nature of some of our programmes, this is quite low.

What is the current financial standing of the university?

We are doing badly. In 2018/18, the capitation to the university was dropped by Sh1.7 and before then, we were already struggling with our budget because of the differentiated funding formula. A huge gap was created immediately and yet we cannot sack the lecturers. We are engaging the government to have that process revised. The Sh16,000 annual fees students pay need to be re-looked at without passing all the burden to the students.

Expelled students have been asked to apply for pardon. What caused the change of heart?

When students are expelled, it devastates and is a loss to the communities they come from more than the individual. I told the senate that we must look at the circumstances of the students and give them another chance. We should be ready to forgive and allow the persons to be restored. We cannot continue throwing out good brains. Even student activism is a good thing. They, at times, just have a different perspective from ours and they should be accommodated.

What is your dream for UoN in the next 50 years?

My dream is to see a university that is vibrant, relevant and sustainable. It must be relevant based on the connection with the community and its innovations changing people’s lives, and where they have freedom to think and air their views.

Is there something like a useless degree?

There is nothing like a useless degree. There’s always a scholar or a cluster of scholars who have gone through that programme and they brainstormed and developed to reproduce themselves; to produce others like themselves. What matters is the extent to which it connects to the needs of the country.