The true story of why vices in universities continue to thrive

University students in Kenya are often in the news for unsettling reasons. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • To help us understand the challenges some university students face, that could be leading to the vices that we read about, we have interviewed five students from universities spread across the country.

University students in Kenya are often in the news for unsettling reasons: crimes of passion, drug abuse, robbery, strikes and other vices.

For a long time, the missing link has been getting to the root of these issues – working backwards to understand the causes and then seeking policies to address them.

To help us understand the challenges some university students face, that could be leading to the vices that we read about, we have interviewed five students from universities spread across the country.

These students have been recognised and awarded as exemplary student leaders by the University Student Leaders Awards (USLA) which is run in by Africa Youth Leadership Forum.

 

EDWARD KIPKALYA, 21

Outgoing Minister, Communication and Technology University of Eastern Africa, Baraton

Edward is currently in his final year of university and he says some of the achievements on his portfolio as a leader include setting up the students’ association, keeping students updated about what is happening in the administration as well as in student government. He also sat in the Information and Technology Committee at his school to advice on how the university administration can use technology to better students’ experiences.

Edward Kipkalya during the interview at Nation Centre on June 18, 2018. PHOTO| DENNIS ONSONGO

“The most common malpractice I came across is cheating in exams and many times, student leaders work with the school administration (Department of Academics) to address these issues,” he says.

The primary cause of exam cheating is that many fail to revise and properly prepare for exams, but there is more. “There is so much pressure on the students – from parents, school administration and fellow students— to perform well. For example, my university’s grading system is very high; with grade A starting at 85 per cent,” he notes.

Fear of failure is one of the reasons students will use any available means, including cheating, to perform well in their exams.

“Some students are also in the habit of missing classes, because they are not passionate about the courses that they are taking. They may be interested in other engagements such as music or sports, but with everyone insisting that they have to attend classes, it works against their wishes and they keep skipping the lectures. However, some just miss classes because of laziness and lack of self-drive; while others find the lecturers boring or simply not serious with the lectures so skipping becomes an option,” he says.

The other issue that is tied to the pressure to perform is drug abuse, especially alcohol.

“Because of the pressure to perform, some students turn to alcohol and end up getting addicted. And sometimes getting into bad friendships also adds to this challenge,” he says.

Stress, drug abuse and  pressure to perform, according to Edward, all lead to mental stress and some students who are not able to withstand the pressure begin to think about suicide.

“Another major source of pressure among university students is relationships. Some male students spend part of their school fees entertaining their girlfriends or squander school fees trying to fit in with their friends, who may come from more privileged backgrounds. So getting to the exam date and they have not paid their school fees and are afraid of facing their parents, they opt to drop out,” he says.

Edward recommends mental health awareness among university students to help with anxiety management.

“Higher education institutions need to come up with policies that obligate student leaders, lecturers and even non-teaching staff to train on how to help students deal with mental issues. Students tend to avoid the main school counsellors, even when they need help, because they feel intimidated by the age difference and find it difficult to fully open up,” he notes, adding that there is no one size fit all when it comes to addressing varsity issues.

“Different universities have different issues affecting them so a method that works at The University of Nairobi might not necessarily work at Baraton,” he advices.

Lastly, he says, the penalties for exam cheating should be heavy and enforced in all instances, to help deter the practice.

 

LILIAN MULI, 22

Laikipia University

Outgoing Director, Gender and Health Affairs

 

“I am currently in fourth year – I exited the position in early Feb following the end of my term,” she says.

As the gender and health affairs director at the school, she was charged with handling gender related issues such as sexual harassment, facilitated collection of donations from students towards helping needy students, championing health issues such as creating awareness about diseases, the importance of safe sex, ensuring that the school hospital runs properly and ensuring that the school environment remained clean.

“There is a lot of drug abuse in my school, a factor that is partly caused by the absence of other forms of entertainment, given the school’s location – far away from any town. The other reason is that some students are not willing to learn new skills or participate in the various extra-curricular activities provided by the school because these programmes have not been adequately introduced to the students – there is no voice to help students totally understand why these extracurricular activities provided by the school are important to them,” she says.

Another issue that Lilian points out is that of early pregnancies which mostly happen because students are not properly guided on what to expect in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex or how to deal with challenges of navigating such relationships when they show their heads.

“Many students jump straight to sexual relationships. There is no orientation of any kind – no guidance on navigating this phase, which is important considering that they have just come in from home, where they were used to being watched by parents or guardians,” she says.

There is only one orientation event for students joining in the first year. These events only touch the surface of what university life entails and Lilian believes that if there were more meetings like those over the university period in a more detailed manner, students will begin to make better choices.

“We have a guidance and counselling office in school but most students are too proud to go, and in this digital era, many young people think that they know everything so do not ask for guidance. The office is also seen as too ‘moralistic’ by some, which makes them afraid to approach counsellors because they do not want to feel judged,” she explains.

Lilian recommends that higher learning institutions develop programmes that bring students and the administration together, directly, because without this, the only beneficiaries of many projects are student leaders.

“University administrations should also be flexible, because some fear change and insist on the old way of doing things even when that is not delivering results,” she says.

Investing in more empowerment programmes for the students, where they are encouraged to speak their minds and ask critical questions is also a useful life skill that students can use in all aspects of their lives.

“Student leaders should have room to disagree with either the students or administration on issues. Sometimes the administration or students push student leaders to do what is unattainable and when it fails, it becomes a failure of student leadership,” she concludes.

 

BRIGHTSTAR KASYOKA, 19

Outgoing finance secretary, Maseno University and the current Youth Governor, Kitui County

As the finance secretary, her duties included carrying out all financial transactions of the student union, and together with other student leaders, act as the link between the administrations and the students.

Due to her interactions with various students, and her own personal experiences, Brightstar is passionate about wellbeing, stability and mental health of the young ones; and this saw her start a foundation to help young people from poverty stricken homes pay school fees and afford basic necessities. In addition, she gives motivational talks, writes inspiring stories, and organises events that give hope to many because despite her young age she has overcome many obstacles.

Brightstar Kasyoka during the interview at Nation Centre on June 21, 2018.PHOTO DENNIS ONSONGO

 Brightstar says that the greatest challenge in institutions of higher learning is idleness.

“Many students are idle because in addition to free time, they do not attend classes or participate in any meaningful activity. I do not blame them because there are various reasons for this: one due to exam irregularities, they feel demoralised and see no point of attending or taking their studies seriously, they lack objectivity to be in school, since some just copy and pass without working hard. Also many campus students are aware of high unemployment rates in the country, hence see no purpose to their degrees because they feel they might after all, end up unemployed,” she notes.

Additionally, the challenge of idleness is compounded by other factors including students living very far away from school because of inadequate university housing.

“Staying very far from school poses many challenges and some students end up missing classes because they do not have fare to bring them to school. Other times, because they lack money for basic needs, like meals; leads to them skipping lectures. They after all cannot concentrate in class when hungry,” she says, adding that challenges at home such as hostile parents and poverty, are also among the factors that affect students. They do not want to go home and suffer so they choose to remain in school even during school holidays, adding to the idleness that easily invites vices.

“For some students, school is an escape from the challenges at home. We also have students who, though physically are in school, cannot attend classes or sit exams because they have fees arrears,” she says.

Furthermore, in public universities; the constant lecturers’ strikes leave students confused because at such periods, some lecturers teach while others don’t and the students are left in confusion whether to go home or not. This contributes to a lot of idleness and pressure begins to mount.

 “Peer pressure begins to creep in and in a bid to fit, they engage in drug abuse, meaningless and purposeless relationships, betting, stealing, premarital sex, come we stay marriages and to some extend rape cases” she discloses.

Brightstar recommends that the government urgently collaborates with institutions of higher learning and corporate world to provide subsidised hostels to accommodate all university students.

“students living very far from school undergo a different set of challenges like insecurity, being late for class or regular skipping of lectures. You can only imagine how frustrating it is to pay rent that is higher than the school fees or to be physically attacked on your way to or from school” she observes.

Work study offered by schools should be open for all students to make them independent, and if not, subsidy on food prices and basic necessities in the messes and shops in schools will ensure that students can comfortably afford them throughout the semester.

“In the long term, the government should think of ways of working with schools and parents on programmes that can better guide the young people when they are going through formative years such as primary and secondary school because many students arrive in the without proper grounding from the home front,” she concludes.

 

MARTIN OWILAH, 28

Outgoing president, Mount Kenya University Students’ Association (MKUSA)

As the president of the students’ body, Martin was in charge of coming up with, organising and managing student events. He was also in charge of students’ welfare, a role that entailed ensuring that sick students were attended to, including organising support for students who are not able to pay their school fees.

“I organised events such as cultural week, freshers’ night and activations, and proceedings raised from these events were used to support needy students,” he says.

Martin Owilah during the interview at Nation Centre on June 18, 2018. PHOTO DENNIS ONSONGO

Universities are designed in such a way that academics are the only focus areas so students who have other interests outside class feel frustrated.

“During my tenure, together with my cabinet, we were able to engage the university administration in coming up with a Talent Development Program which gave a platform for students to engage in other activities that interest them outside academic work and this has lowered the number of students engaging in vices because they are positively and objectively busy with their peers,” he notes.

In the absence of properly structured non-academic events that students can engage in, vices come in.

First year students need to be guided on the mission, vision and core values of their universities because understanding this will reduce the number of strikes in universities for they will understand from the outset what is expected of them and will not be easily influenced negatively.

Martin says that it will help a great deal if universities embrace wholesome entertainment programmes which will keep students engaged in school and out of harm’s way.

“Many students desire entertainment during their free time, but the lack of the same exposes them to dangerous people. A function like a cultural week keeps a student in school for months just to prepare,” he concludes.

 

JOSEPH KISUNGU KIMEU, 27

Outgoing Vice-president 2017/2018 and former Minister for Finance, Labor and planning 2016/2017, University of Eastern Africa, Baraton

As the vice president of the students’ council, Joseph is charged with acting as bridge between students and the school administration, advocate for the rights and freedoms of students, enhancing students’ welfare within the university and surrounding communities and initiating and influencing innovation and transformative exchange programmes and income generating projects.

Joseph Kisingu. PHOTO| COURTESY

Joseph says drug abuse and gambling are some of the key vices among the students.

“Despite strict measures by the university to tame drug abuse, students still find ways of abusing highly addictive drugs like marijuana and alcohol. This causes many students to drop out of school or even commit suicide,” he notes, pointing that effects of drug abuse among students are never-ending.

“Because of drug abuse, some students are not able to attend classes, miss exams which results to poor academic performance which can lead to a student being discontinued from the institution. Drug abuse also results to reckless behaviour,” he explains.

Students engage in drug abuse because of peer influence, financial challenges and sometimes, lifestyles picked up from home.

“Most students join university when they are innocent but with time, they are tempted to experience everything when they are freshmen, which can later become addictive,” he says.

Students who have financial challenges are also vulnerable because they have to borrow from their fellow students or other people outside school which then makes them susceptible to whatever vice the other party is into.

“Some students, mostly from well off families, begin drinking and smoking at home so this is not a big deal. Unfortunately, they influence others,’’ he says adding that some even engage in gambling in order to sustain their new lifestyles. ‘’Students who are financially challenged try to get easy money and they think betting is the solution. The results are heartbreaking, most of the time,” he says, and recommends school-based income generating activities that students can work on to make money and stay out of trouble.

Joseph also recommends continuous mentorship and exchange programmes where students can be guided on how to become self-reliant and how to make the right decisions when faced with life’s challenges.

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