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Kenyan Higher Education in Turmoil

There is growing malady silently destroying creativity, productivity, and intellectual effectiveness. Although it is global rather than country specific, it affects some countries more than others. The malady is highly visible in the sector of education where university management and regulatory agencies appear to undermine knowledge production and sense of ethics in the faculty graduate student relations. That lack of clarity was vivid in a session at the Los Angeles APSA conference. The issue was one of faculty joyriding on graduate students, one of whether or not a faculty member, supervising a graduate student, should attach his name as a first author to a student’s publication. Students, it turned out, resent faculty members expropriating credit for what the student had done.

The challenge of faculty-graduate student publication relationship is in more countries than the United States; it is also big in Kenya. Other education related issues create such confusion at the national level that they make joyriding insignificant. The confusion goes to the beginning of the colonial state with the debates as to what kind of education the state intended to give to natives, and who was to give it. Since the debate was never concluded, it keeps cropping up in the form of education commissions whose regular findings and conclusions repeatedly sound the same. The confusion repeatedly intensifies.    

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Kenya, from its inception as a colonial state, was unfortunate to be treated as a laboratory for various well-meaning men and women of influence to conduct their educational experiments. In the colonial days, for instance, capitation for mzungu schools was many times higher than that of the ‘natives’ because education was racial and philosophically separated potential policy makers, white settler children, and the intended watu wa mkono, children of the ‘natives’. The United States was fully involved, starting with former US President Theodore Roosevelt when he visited in 1909 to encourage the creation of ‘white man’s country’. American missionaries exposed ‘natives’ to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery book as well as his Tuskegee Institute. The Phelps Stoke Commission in the 1920s reinforced the Tuskegee mentality that native children have no business becoming critical thinkers. At independence, the new elite sent their children to mzungu schools to receive the mzungu educational treatment as potential policymakers and then, experimenting on those who were not in the mzungu schools, repeated the same arguments about the need to produce watu wa mkono rather than critical thinkers.

Experimentation is still taking place, evidenced in the current confusion in university management. Mismanagement and poorly designed implementation structures shatter the dreams of thousands of students by denying them opportunities. Cabinet and principal secretaries reportedly send their children to expensive educational institutions outside the country and thereby siphon the limited supply of foreign currency in the state. In doing so, they increase the burden on local universities that have problems maintaining facilities or paying for services rendered. Seemingly under the supervision of extra-continental forces imposing Structural Adjustment Programs or SAPS, policy makers surrender their responsibility to the whims of external forces.

Kenya subsequently slid downwards in everything and, in surrendering responsibility, policy makers specialized in self-contradictions. They appear to live large on the little in the country, pauperize the middle class with excessive taxes, and make reckless and depressing utterances that show insensitivity to public plight. They actually do not know the hurting cost of living because the public pays for their motorcades, housing, entertainment and overseas travels. In the process, sycophancy becomes the order of the day, and closed-mindedness blinds them to socio-economic and political tragedy that lurks in the horizon. As they seek external glorification, the country sinks deep into underdevelopment which manifests itself in the collapsing education sector, from baby school to universities. The country is subsequently in economic and mind recession and university education is among the casualties. 

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Gone are the days when universities were citadels of knowledge production, challengers of the mind, and promoters of critical thinking. Lecturers were promoted because they created and disseminated knowledge in various known ways, not simply by being lucky to be appointed to state offices as academic nyapara. Emphasis shifted, with IMF and World Bank encouragement, from knowledge production to knowledge importation which in turn discouraged local scholarship. This seemed to have turned the growing number of universities into factory like degree conveyor belts for thousands of ‘graduates’ with limited critical thinking. The independence of university management declined, top appointees tended to be cronies. This negatively affected morale down the academic chain as lecturers lost academic freedom. With the stress on ‘teaching’, policy makers overloaded the ‘teachers’ with assorted classes for which many were unprepared, and did not allow time for research. Yet, the same teachers who had no time for research or knowledge production were ordered to produce PhDs even when they had no capacity.

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As scholarship and knowledge production ceased being criteria for academic promotion, other considerations took priority, including state appointments. More seriously than being a systems person as reason for promotion, however, was the trend of faculty joyriding on the work of the graduate students they supposedly supervise. They ‘co-author’ articles with their graduate students who do all the work but when it comes to publication the supervisor’s name appears as the main author and the poor student’s name would come later. The CVs of those seeking promotion, while showing a lot of co-authorship with students, also show failure of lecturers to engage in independent scholarship and knowledge production. The official excuse for this joyriding is that in guiding the student, the ‘teacher’ had input in the final product. But then, that is the reason the professor is there; to help the student but not to help himself through the work of the student.  

The current crisis in Kenya’s universities is a result of accumulated mismanagement, lack of philosophy and policy clarity, and surrendering responsibility to extra-continental interests. With the surrender, universities lost resources and direction. Shifting criteria for lecturer promotion from intellectual productivity to state appointments and faculty joyriding on graduate student publications was not good. It undermined critical thinking and national interests.

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Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU

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