Time to rethink higher education for the future

Moi University

Graduands follow proceedings during the Moi University 43rd graduation ceremony in Kesses, Uasin Gishu County on June 23.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Trends in higher education in the recent past have received mixed reaction with some players in academia dismissing higher education as an irrelevant route to the world of riches, while others affirm it as an important path to knowledge, skills, competences and attitudes, which society cannot prosper without.

As higher education continues to experience pressure to change owing to contribution it makes to economic success, it squarely emerges that universities create knowledge, access and improve equity. To this end, higher education institutions increasingly compete for students, research funds and the invaluable sought-after academic staff.

While it is true that many wealthy men —among them famous people like Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg among others — despite dropping out of university prospered in their business ventures, the fact is that universities are still on demand globally.

In the annals of history, the memory lane reveals that most world-famous universities emerged from monasteries in the middle ages. Those monasteries offered a sanctuary for medieval philosophers to reflect on society. In question was how those intellectual minds could help better the society. It was certainly no place for the merchant class to seek knowledge, which would help them trade and make more money.

Today, things are different. New approaches to financing and governance, combined with the authority of the State and the power of markets, dictate how institutions are gaining greater freedom to run their own academic affairs. Public funds are allocated in “lump-sum” form, and funding from students and business is increasingly encouraged. In exchange for autonomy, governments seek to hold institutions to account, linking funding to performance and publicly assessing quality.

For those viewing higher education as their ultimate goal in life, it is the duty of a society to make sure that these havens of knowledge are well managed, well guided to nurture great talents in academia and subsequently in the workplace. In this regard, and more so, considering the prevailing constraits, universities need to operate with lean staff on short-term contracts to avoid hefty salaries and wages.

Higher education institutions have to work hard to meet funding and regulatory criteria and at the same time to strengthen their market position. There is an emphasis on institutional strategy, and a shift in power away from individual departments. External members sit on governing bodies formerly dominated by academic interests. Senior managers are selected for their leadership skills as well as for their academic prowess. In such circumstances, the tensions tend to arise and may even escalate if mismanaged. Higher education institutions need to develop a creative balance between academic mission and executive capacity; and between financial viability and traditional values. Governments have to balance the encouragement of excellence with the promotion of equity. In the knowledge economy, the stakes are high.

Borrowing a leaf from an advanced country like the UK, universities in that country have now taken a fresh route where they are cutting down on staff employed on permanent and pensionable basis and embracing contracts.

According to the latest data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), more than a third of the academic workforce is now on temporary, fixed-term contracts. Moreover, the official staffing statistics also indicate that in the UK, some 82,000 academicians are on an hourly basis compensated.

The need to manage their payrolls comes amid rising efforts by governments worldwide to cut funding for institutions of higher learning. In Kenya, state allocation for government-sponsored students in private universities has dropped by more than Sh43,000 in the last four years, prompting the institutions to increase tuition fees. Data from the Universities Fund shows that the capitation per student dropped to Sh40,366 in the year ending June, a 52 percent drop from Sh84,217 allocated in 2021.

The government has urged universities to desist from raising student fees and instead to embrace innovative ways to raise cash. For example, universities that engage in meaningful research easily attract funding from the non-governmental world. Well, that said, there is still great need for institutions to embrace more digital classes and examinations.

Suffice to say that digital transformation in the global higher education industry determines the future roadmap to a sustainable education management strategy. The world we live in is changing at a fast pace and what we teach and how we teach is also evolving rapidly. The powerful changes in the socio-economic-education system resulting from the globalised economy have led to propelling changes specifically in higher education such as education standard, quality, decentralisation, virtual and independent learning. It is under this compelling case that Kenyan universities must take the digital route.

At the same time, I would suggest that we come up with criteria detailing every lecturer’s target of the number of students to serve per semester through teaching and research. Such a formula would ensure that the student is likely to trust his lecturer more, show more engagement in learning and research and achieve higher levels academically.

Additionally, it is time we had higher education policy where students get vouchers to pursue a course in one university but are equally allowed to transfer to another university with similar courses without restrictions.

This would help universities increase efficiency and improve performance. It would also open students to an array of tutors and teaching methods in different institutions.

In an effort to spur digitisation in our universities, it is equally time that those doing PhD secured the opportunity to present their findings virtually to a larger panel of external and internal examiners, local and international. It would also be convenient for a student engaged in remote learning to make his or her presentation, while opening up the panel to be joined by diverse scholars.

Transitioning from secondary school to higher education provides challenges to many students. To aid this transition, colleges and universities worldwide offer induction programmes to first year students. It would be important that through these programmes, the students are given mentors to guide them through the challenging university life, and launch them onto a clear path to their careers.

Dr Letting is the Chief Executive Officer at Kasneb