Higher education: Are local institutions aligned to the 21st century?

Career fair

Students from secondary schools within Mombasa County follow presentations during a panel discussion at the Nation Media Group’s Higher Education Career Fair held at the Mombasa Sports Club on November 19, 2021. The students were urged to seek advice before choosing careers.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • There are many students, despite scoring good grades, remain clueless or conflicted on the next steps to take.
  • Besides career choice, there are other pertinent issues that affect students in institutions of higher learning.

The 226,490 thousand students who scored grades  qualifying them for diploma and degree courses in institutions of higher learning have been celebrating since they received the results. However, as the celebrations ebb away and the dust settles, they now face a new reality. They need to choose a course that will ultimately determine their future careers.

A few lucky ones already have their minds set on what they want to do, but there are those who, despite scoring good grades, remain clueless or conflicted on the next steps to take.

Tabitha Wambui is one of those who find themselves at a crossroads. She scored a mean grade of B plain and her overwhelming excitement speaks to her expectations.

“I still cannot believe it. I was just praying for a C+ so this is quite momentous for me. My dreams are to pursue a health related course,” she says.

She hopes to undertake a course in nursing, but despite her good performance, she is worried she might not realise her desire since she performed poorly in chemistry. She desperately needs career guidance to ease her anxiety.

Tirus Tendwa scored a B+ mean grade and hopes to enrol for a degree in computer science, his first choice and long-held dream.

“Not everyone has their mind made up like me, or who scored grades to enable them to study for their first choice of career. Appropriate guidance, especially after results are announced could benefit a lot of students,” he says. 

Besides career choices, however, there are other pertinent issues that affect students in institutions of higher learning directly, issues most students may be impervious to. The institution’s curriculum adaptability to job market trends, staffing levels and availability of facilities for specialised training, and the cost of education are all relevant issues that must be addressed in students’ effort to secure their future.

The Kenya University and College Central Placement Service, (Kuccps), has 545 degree and 217 diploma programmes listed on their website. This high number of options can be confusing for students who lack an understanding of the courses, therefore, besides placing students in various universities and colleges, Kuccps is mandated to offer career guidance to students to help them select courses that are most appropriate for them.

The placement service does this through one-on-one engagements with students in school before they sit their final exams. It has branches in 14 Huduma centres where students can walk in for consultation. They also send representatives to counties where they do not have offices, to engage the students on scheduled dates.

However, both Tabitha and Tirus fault the Kuccps engagement with students. Drawing from their experience, they say that the engagement lasted for a day only, and most of the time was spent walking students through the application process.

“We have universities in almost every region of this country,” notes Tirus, “If these institutions organised for regular career consultations with schools within these regions, it would go a long way in giving students much needed knowledge on how to navigate through the process.”

Professor Robert Kinyua, the deputy vice chancellor (Academic Affairs), Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, notes that this is something that has been ongoing through universities’ career departments.

Career fair

From left: Ruth Namalwa, Rita Bosibori and James Muiga. The three attended the Nation’s Higher Education and Career fair held at the KICC on January 17, 2020. The theme of the fair was Careers for the Future.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

“In our case, for instance, we go to schools at our own cost to help students understand what various courses and programmes are all about, and educate them on required qualifications. We also invite schools to visit our main campus where they are walked through various departments and engage with our staff for coaching.”

He also adds that when freshmen join the institution, they are taken through proper orientation to assist those who might still be conflicted on what they want to do, and are given a chance to transfer to other programmes that they are qualified for.

Doctor Kelly Oluoch, the acting CEO of Kenya Medical Training College, says that the institution offers similar solutions.

“Since we recognise that students need more guidance once their results are out, we organise career days in all our institutions where prospective learners interested in medical courses are engaged by our staff to help them narrow down and identify where their strengths lie and what courses suit them best.”

Once students join their allocated universities and colleges, their journey towards building their careers commences. It is the role of these institutions to produce competent professionals, and ensure that the training they receive is relevant to market needs and in sync with current trends.

“Knowledge is not static, therefore we must keep evolving as time progresses,” comments Prof Kinyua. “One of the biggest challenge we have is students grappling with unemployment after graduating. We looked at the Asian market where the maritime industry is thriving and one can earn as high as 7,000 dollars a month. This informed our decision to introduce a degree in Marine Engineering.”

Through partnerships with foreign universities where the programme is more advanced, he notes that they are able to send their students to these countries, free of charge, where they spend seven months on a ship and get to practise what they are taught in class.

Kinyua adds that identifying gaps in the market has led them to introduce several degree programmes in health and engineering such as mechatronics, radiography, medical laboratory sciences and emergency medicine.
Oluoch also notes that KMTC has adopted this approach through introduction of various certificate, diploma and higher diploma courses.

“One of the approaches we have taken is preventive medicine, where we train community health workers who are at the grassroots of the health system, on common ailments, maternal healthcare and other areas such as immunisation and nutrition. We also have a course where we train the layman on home-based care for ailing patients who can no longer stay at the hospital.”

By doing this, Dr Oluoch notes that they help reduce the burden on hospitals, and contribute to the government’s agenda of achieving universal healthcare, and raise living standards for a lot of disadvantaged communities. He adds that through government bilateral ties, they are able to export a workforce to other countries, which in the long run benefits the country through foreign exchange. Inclusion of English and computer competency courses in the curriculum means that graduates are all-rounded and fit for the international market.

Onesmus Mutio, a lecturer at the Multimedia University, and the national organising secretary of the Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu), says that there is a crisis in Kenya’s universities, citing the cause as the apparent neglect of tertiary education by the government.

“All universities are understaffed. This therefore means that the few available lecturers are overworked, and universities are heavily dependent on part-time lecturers and trainers. While engaging part-time lecturers offers an easy solution, students end up losing out as most of them have no extra time for out of class consultations and some have poor commitment.”

According to Commission for University Education guidelines, the lecturer to students’ ratio is determined by the discipline under study. Medicine has the lowest ratio at 1:7, applied sciences such as biochemistry and pure sciences such as mathematics have a recommended ratio of 1:10. The ratio for arts is 1:13 while social sciences has a ratio of 1:18.

“However, the reality in our institutions is far from this,” notes Prof Kinyua. He opines that this challenge stems right from primary education and stretches all the way to tertiary institutions.

“For courses that are critical such as medicine, the regulator is strict, therefore the ratio is not badly off at 1:9, however, for arts and applied sciences programmes for instance, you find a lecturer handling as many as over 100 students.

“The way this affects the quality of education is when administering tests. While marking all these booklets, a lecturer is bound to make errors in grade allocation as they do not have ample time to go through each booklet in detail. It also means that a lecturer cannot have a one-on-one relationship with the students.”

The same challenge is also present when it comes to access to facilities for specialised training. Limited facilities means that many qualified students who want to study programmes in these categories end up being left out.

“In a test where a student is supposed to undertake an experiment alone, for instance, they end up carrying out the experiment in a group, say of five. If two amongst these students get it right, the lecturer passes the whole group. The danger in this is that results for some students are not indicative of the true picture of their potential and understanding.”

College students

Besides career choice, there are other pertinent issues that affect students in institutions of higher learning.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Oluoch submits that a good solution for this would be investment in simulated laboratories as is being used in more advanced countries.

“In medicine for instance, high fidelity mannequins can emulate an actual patient and give students ample room to practise, make mistakes, learn and perfect their craft before they are allowed to handle real patients. As much as these dummies cannot replace actual patients, they go a long way in being part of the solution.”
Role of the government

Kinyua insists that the government has a huge role to play when it comes to improving the quality of education in Kenyan universities, especially in resource allocation.

“A lot of emphasis is put in basic education, but tertiary education seems to have been forgotten. The biggest challenge for us is resources, on the one hand the government only funds about 40 percent of what we require, on the other, we are capped by laws not to increase fees. Government-sponsored students in universities are actually paying less than what secondary school and some primary school students pay.”

He also adds that the government has a role to ensure that there is a conducive environment for absorption of graduates into the job market or to run start and run successful businesses.

“We train our students on how to draft business plans and apply for loans, but in the end, it will not matter if the environment is not conducive. There are too many hurdles in our current environment that are not friendly to blooming businesses,” Prof Kinyua said.

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