EAST AFRICA: Honorary degrees 'abused' - claim

Universities in two East African countries, Kenya and Tanzania, have come under fire for prolifically awarding honorary degrees - in some cases allegedly for money and in others in return for influence.

The Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) - the agency charged with regulating university education - and its counterpart in Kenya have both complained to universities about their postgraduate degree numbers and choices.

In Kenya an American institution, United Graduate College and Seminary, has raised eyebrows for allegedly liberally dishing out honorary degrees and professorships. There have also been claims that it asked potential beneficiaries to make contributions.

"We are investigating these claims and we will soon let Kenyans know the truth," said Professor Everett Standa, CEO of the Commission for Higher Education (CHE).

When officials of the US seminary visited Nairobi recently, they claimed it had conferred honorary degrees on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, and former presidents of Nigeria and Mozambique.

The online college's Chancellor of Educational Development Worldwide, Professor Clyde Rivers, said 25 Kenyans had also been honoured with doctoral degrees: "There are so many great Kenyans who have waited to be recognised for so long," he told reporters.

Standa said some local and foreign universities were eager to include powerful politicians and key business personalities on their lists of alumni, for political or financial gain.

While it was up to universities to choose the people they awarded honorary qualifications to, it was unethical for people to pay for the degrees, Standa said. "Honorary degrees are conferred as an honour. Why then should somebody pay for the same?" he asked.

The Tanzanian authorities are dealing with similar cases - a trend that raises questions as to the credibility of higher education in the region.

"The TCU has noted with great concern that in recent years there has been a proliferation of honorary doctoral degree awards being conferred upon a number of highly respected dignitaries in Africa," said the Commission in a public notice in newspapers recently.

Also, a "good number" of VIPs had been awarded honorary degrees by institutions whose credibility was "highly questionable, not only in Tanzania but also in their countries of origin", said TCU Executive Secretary Professor Muyunga Nkunya.

Nkunya said some institutions awarding honorary degrees had pretended this was being done to honour Africa. "TCU feels that this could be misleading and diverging from the truth; that in fact most of these degrees are offered in exchange for money or fame to the granting institutions," he added.

The honorary degrees scandals come at a time when the higher education sectors in the five-member East African Community - of which Kenya and Tanzania are members - are facing a credibility crisis. The quality of learning is said to be crumbling.

A harmonised quality assurance system for East Africa is currently being developed to help ensure the standards and comparability of university education among member states. Other countries include Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

In 2006 three East African higher education regulatory agencies - Kenya's CHE, Tanzania's TCU and Uganda's National Council for Higher Education - signed a memorandum of cooperation aimed at streamlining and harmonising accreditation and quality assurance practices and procedures in the region.

But many challenges have impeded the provision of quality higher education: insufficient human capacity, inadequate funding, and lack of standards and mechanisms to regulate the quality of e-learning and cross-border education.

University education in East Africa has grown rapidly in the past 20 years in terms of numbers of institutions, student enrolment and diverse modes of delivery - such as e-learning and distance education. This too has exerted pressure on education quality.