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Monday, October 12, 2015

Act now to restore confidence in our universities

Kenya’s higher education sector is in turmoil. A lot has been a lot written and said about the quality of academic programs and the quality of graduates form our universities, both private and public. Employers and professional associations have been most vocal about the decline in the quality of degree programs and the astounding incompetence of graduates. 

The crisis in higher education is not inexplicable. As the saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost. The quality of students and indeed the performance of the higher education institutions are only as good as what we put in. We reap what we sow.

Lets examine the pipeline. What is happening at every part of the education system? Under the county governments early childhood development and education centres are moribund. No meaningful, age appropriate learning and stimulation happens to the hundreds of thousands of children who attend public ECDE centres across the country.

The precipitous expansion of access under FPE has huge implications on quality of learning. Nearly two out of every three pupils who have completed two years in primary school cannot pass basic numeracy and literacy tests. Moreover, nearly 30 percent of children who complete primary school cannot read or write or do math at the level of a child in grade four. But keep in mind the fact that 30% of Kenyan children are taught math by teachers who score less 40% in a math knowledge assessment. This is a according to a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre

I have looked at KCSE national mean scores in languages, math, science and humanities, i.e., English, Math; Kiswahili, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Geography and History between 2009 and 2013. What I see is both frightening and powerfully revealing. For example, the mean score in English has declined from 39% in 2009 to 27% in 2013. There has been a slight improvement in Math score from 21% in 2009 to 28% in 2013. Between 2009 and 2013, the mean score in science was 28%, 35% and 23% in Biology, Physics and Chemistry respectively. The average score in humanities and Kiswahili was somewhat higher at 42%, 45% and 39% in Geography, History and Kiswahili respectively. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics publishes these statistics in the National Statistical Abstract. 

These statistics are both sobering and instructive. They help in part to explain what in my view is a full-blown crisis in higher education, not only in Kenya but also in the EAC region. According to study commissioned by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) 56% of students graduating from universities in East Africa are unemployable. This study revealed that 51% of Kenyan graduates were half-baked, unsuitable for the job market. 

The point on incompetence was made unequivocally when Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates who lacked mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments supported by sound legal analysis and reasoning. This is hardly surprising if you consider that the mean score in English in 2013 was just 27%.  

Patrick Lumumba, the director of Kenya School of Law admits that quality of university education is below the required standards, and that admission standards are at an all time low to maximize tuition revenue. Moreover, according to Professor Lumumba, universities have proliferated teaching programs to generate additional revenue to finance ballooning operational costs. Furthermore, the pace of expansion of universities had outstripped the rate at which we are training and recruiting the professoriate. The combination is a veritable disaster; atrocious quality of teaching and poor quality students.  

Here are some suggestions that could help restore confidence in our graduates and universities. We must strengthen the quality of teaching and learning across the entire education system, from Cto high school. Universities must be highly selective and only admit students who are well prepared for undergraduate programs. We must reform undergraduate curriculum to encourage experimentation and discovery. Content should not be pursued as an end in it self, but must made relevant through case and problem-based learning approaches.

Last but not least, we must hold universities accountable for value and quality. There must be clear institutional performance goals as well as objective and verifiable data on student and learning achievement across all undergraduate programs. We must act now to redeem our universities.

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