Quality of education in varsities and colleges needs urgent review
25 April 2016
Author: Collins Ouma
Walkway into a renowned Kenyan university: There is concern that quality is low at both public and private institutions of higher learning. Photo: Flickr/Ting Chen

In the wake of the ongoing debate on the reform of Kenya’s school curriculum, this may be the appropriate time to address the factors contributing to the declining quality of education in institutions of higher learning.

The country has been undergoing many institutional transitions following the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. Universities have been expanding rapidly, creating a big challenge in the delivery of quality and relevant education and training.

This phenomenon has been further compounded by political interference, corruption, nepotism, and socio-economic mayhem occasioned by the frail national agencies charged with the responsibility of ensuring quality and standards.

It is disappointing that irrelevant and low quality education and training is being offered in most of these institutions under the guise of “ISO certification” overseen by the Commission for University Education (CUE). Indeed, in a previous report, the commission indicated that universities are crippled by an acute shortage of professors and that they are increasingly turning to part-time lecturers, many of whom only possess master’s degrees.

There is concern that quality is low at both public and private institutions of higher learning. Academic fraud is rife, efficiency wanting, relevance uncertain, and wastage substantial. Although the institutions produce a significant proportion of the labour force, their poor global ranking is a reflection of declining academic standards.

It is noteworthy that it took the government about 40 years to build seven public universities, which are still not yet equipped to international standards. In recent times, it has taken the government only five years to build 23 more public universities against the backdrop of a fragile economy. Statistically, this amounts to a growth of more than 200 per cent.

In addition, there are more than 200 tertiary institutions. Yet according to the Universities Act (2012), the government anticipates to set up at least one public university in each of the 47 counties.

Even though a high population of university students is a good indicator of growth and a key pillar in socio-economic development, the process of expansion needs to be moderated to maintain high standards

The poor remuneration for the academic staff does not motivate them sufficiently to provide quality teaching and research. Most academic staff adopt rudimentary methods of teaching in their resource-strained environments, thus compromising the quality of graduates. With an increase in the number of campuses in most urban centres, academic staff are reduced to accepting part-time jobs to make more money at the expense of research, a key element in imparting knowledge to learners.

It is frustrating for doctorate degree holders, who should ideally be the mentors of upcoming scholars, to be reduced to the status of teachers, reading notes to students in a series of classes across these mushrooming campuses. This running around various campuses leaves them with little time for research.

Moreover, the examination system in some institutions has deteriorated and is marred with irregularities. Nepotism, tribalism, cheating, and plagiarism are rife. Even worse are the incidents of grades being exchanged for sexual favours.

Another factor that contributes to poor quality is lack of modern equipment. A tour of most institutions of higher learning reveals poor learning environments, unbalanced student-to-staff ratios, and the conversion of many middle-level colleges into universities. Some universities shorten their semesters to save money after charging low fees.

Other challenges include awarding honorary doctorates to potential donors, poor management of examinations, using theoretical methods to teach practical courses, and poor and dilapidated infrastructure.

A cursory survey of the most recently established universities reveals that in many instances, lecturers are no longer rated according to the quality of professional training, experience, moral value, integrity, and quality of research and publication. Instead, lecturers are evaluated based on the number of students taught, political power and alignments, and how well one is connected to the institution’s main administrators and managers.

This lends credence to the contention of some educationists that in some Kenyan institutions of higher learning, one’s level of sycophancy is a consideration when it comes to recruitment and promotion.

Matters are further complicated when academic and administrative ranks are pegged on affirmative action, gender balance, minorities and tribal and regional balance as well as representation of persons with disabilities. Even though promoting equity is desirable, the flipside is the likelihood of watering down the quality of academic and administrative staff and ultimately the quality of education.

Prof. Ouma is the director of research and knowledge translation, African Institute for Development Policy. Collins.ouma@afidep.org.

This story was initially published as an Op-Ed on the Daily Nation, Monday 25th of April 2016.

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