The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya's Higher Education Globally Competitive

interview

Prof Erastus Njoka is the vice chancellor of Chuka University. He was interviewed by Star correspondent Caroline Wambui.

Do you think free basic education has been achieved in Kenya?

We really don't have free education -- what we have is supplemented education as parents have to buy books, uniform etc, but it's a positive move by the government and a great relieve to the parents whose children could not initially access education.

How can you rate the quality of education in Kenya, and do you think that the government is doing enough to ensure learners get quality education?

The quality of education in Kenya is very high as compared to other countries in the region. Being a Kenyan and having travelled to other regions I have observed that students from Kenya excel better as compared to most students in the region. The government is doing enough to promote education even with their lean finances. A good example is the laptops project that it plans to initiate with the aim of having competitive computer literate students right from the start.

Education is critical to the development of the nation. However, the relationship between the government and that of lecturers, secondary and primary school teachers has been sour for a long time. How can this gap be bridged to avoid the school calendar interruptions.

Kenya is a developing nation with little resources -- the government cannot afford pay hikes for everyone at the same time. In Kenya, most people don't go to the table (to negotiate). They also don't listen to the court's voice -- they just want to push and fight instead of airing their grievances to the right people. We have lawyers and judges who are being paid to settle such disputes.

University dons were on strike recently. What exactly are the underlying issues?

I don't want to be the spokesman for vice chancellors but here at Chuka, we don't have that problem as we got money from the government with a particular formula to pay the lecturers -- we adhered to it. Nobody paid the management; we only paid eligible people and that was all. However, generally the issue is that lecturers are saying they were given money and they want to be given a 33 per cent increase. The government gave Sh7.8 billion cash and did not provide the percentages in which the money was to be shared.

When the vice chancellors met, they discovered that the salary increase could only go to 22 per cent maximum. This was followed by negotiations between the universities and the unions. There was an MoU, a collective bargaining agreement, between the university management and the union. In the agreement, there was an error which both UASU and the universities discovered -- the money given by the government could not reach the required 33 per cent, a thing that brought about disagreements.

That was in 2012. The error was an oversight as the same amount could still be required the following year to pay the lecturers. The unions were called to own the error and sign but they declined. The university managements went to court, and when the union was called several times they declined and ran away demanding 33 per cent.

The court said the collective bargaining agreement that was signed was erroneous and that the correct one was the one that had been revised. The court ruled that the university pay with the new schedule -- the revised schedule -- and the universities went ahead and paid and for a whole year no one talked. They came back after a while to say that they wanted the Sh7.8 billion paid and the calculations were done. There were two tables -- one showing 22 per cent and the union brought another table showing 33 per cent -- so there was a stalemate. If the vice chancellors were to pay the demanded increment, the government would need to release another Sh2 billion. This is the genesis of the disagreements.

Why do you think the government is not taking action against vice chancellors who misappropriated the money set aside for paying lecturers? Do you think there is a conspiracy about this?

There is no conspiracy. If the union or anyone thinks that a vice chancellor has misappropriated funds they should take the said vice chancellor to court as this is a country with laws instead of mobilising people in the streets with mere propagandas.

There are so many upcoming institutions of higher learning offering education but have no adequate facilities to meet the growing demand. Do you feel this affects the quality of education?

Definitely it can affect the quality as we are at an intermediate stage where we have been relying on support from universities abroad for a while. The universities look for the best lecturers around and the few that we have are not enough. The quality may not be that high but it's above average up to the time when we will have many professors. I know the government is doing its best to ensure quality education as it gives public universities money to pay their lecturers and to buy requisite facilities, though this may not be adequate.

Compare private universities and public universities in terms of quality and performance.

There is no comparison as public universities are funded by the government and controlled by the Ministry of Education. Quality of education in public universities is good as they get funding from the government -- it's not business-oriented. I am not saying that all private institutions are bad. Some like Strathmore University have virtually all the facilities. The quality of education mainly depends on the facilities, the quality of lecturers and the students. Experts have accused higher institutions of learning of not tailoring their courses in line with Vision 2030 -- they only have a mass production of incompetent and unskilled individuals who are virtually unemployable. What's your take?

I don't really think that the courses have not been tailored to meet the market demand as most universities have now introduced courses that have were previously not being taught, like criminology, to meet the market demand. Employers and the public should advise the education institutions to meet their demands and expectations.

Universities are engaging so many part-time lecturers instead of employing fulltime lecturers. How effective are they in delivering the quality expected of learners in higher institutions of learning?

Some universities, and especially the upcoming ones, cannot manage to employ many full-time lecturers now but will do so with time. Some part-time lecturers are very effective and they help bridge the gap.

Why are so many postgraduate students being admitted into Kenyan universities not completing their studies in good time?

Some students run away after completing their coursework only to come back when their time has elapsed to plead to be allowed to continue. Others start the course but later find that they are too busy and end up terminating the course.

Comment on the issue of graduates who have turned to drugs, crime and prostitution to make ends meet.

Graduates need to think of ways of creating employment rather than relying only on white collar jobs that may not be forthcoming or may take a while. There are so many income-generating activities that the youth can engage in from farming to technology.

Some universities have been known to enrol form four leavers awaiting their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results? Do you think this compromises the quality of education?

Definitely as it's very hard to determine if the student will pass or not. What happens when the results are out and the student fails? Quality is indeed compromised.

Students who score first class honours never get sponsored by some universities. Is this a way of frustrating them?

Some universities sponsor top performers, but it can be very hard if the university is upcoming. Here in Chuka, we sponsor the best student in the faculty with the best grade overall.

Critics say universities in Kenya are no longer scholarly -- they are business-oriented and that is why they are not producing quality graduates because the ratio of lecturers to students has gone beyond the standard of 1: 15. Lecturers are working round the year without leaves to earn money, neglecting self-development and research. What is your take on this?

The situation will stabilise with time. As I said earlier, we are at an intermediate level and the moment we acquire qualified and sufficient employees the quality will automatically improve, and lecturers will manage to have their normal leaves comfortably. Do you think students pursuing degrees using school-based mode are getting value for their money?

Yes, they do as they study for a whole month during the holiday. In addition, they have many other consultations in the course of the term with their supervisors and lecturers.

Big Kenyan universities can graduate a class of 250 masters students in one programme and in one graduation ceremony whereas the departments involved lack professors and senior lecturers. What is your take on this in as far as quality supervision is concerned? Maybe this can only happen in those institutions where quality is not factored in and the institution is business-oriented.

The new upcoming universities are nothing short of tribal universities where staff and management are drawn from communities where they have been founded. What advice can you give to the government about this?

The university should be universal-- the government is doing what it can to discourage tribalism. However, when an institution is managed by people from its area, the people feel that they own their region and they are at a better position to stabilise situations and create uniqueness. However, at the top level, the government can control this but have minimal control when it comes to some lower levels. Some programmes offered by some universities are redundant and not well-suited to address Kenya's problems in the 21st Century. Why are all universities offering related programmes? There are so many courses being introduced by universities but it doesn't mean that they are redundant.

Kenyans should advise the ministry and the universities -- not criticise. The education system is so bad that what individuals learnt is only to criticise and not to make positive contributions. Their contributions are now welcome. As a scholar who studied during the time when government supported education fully, what do you think can be done reasonably by the government without hurting the economy to ensure quality higher education?

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