KENYA: Private courses to be reviewed for skills fit

Kenya has directed at least 15 private universities to review their degree courses every four years in a bid to align academic offerings to changes in the labour market. This requirement comes as East Africa's biggest economy seeks to tackle biting graduate unemployment and boost its human capital base.

The Commission for Higher Education, or CHE, in guidelines released this month, said the call for four-yearly course review is meant to ensure that universities focus on producing high-priority skills for the job market.

The latest development will affect chartered private universities, while not applying to the country's seven public universities. Kenya has 23 public and private universities.

But the focus on private universities is complementary to the plan outlined last year to review public university course offerings based on their inclination towards science and technology - a shift that could see dozens of popular courses scrapped, as Kenya moves to link higher education to society's long-term economic goals.

The CHE was due to meet with officials in affected private universities in the past week to thrash out any issues around implementation of the guidelines. Some of Kenya's biggest universities are among those that have been roped into the review directive, including the United States International University, Strathmore University, Kenya Methodist University, Mt Kenya University, the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and Daystar University.

Currently, Kenyan universities - public and private alike - have the latitude to appraise their course offerings at will, meaning the changes are likely to cause controversy in the higher education sector.

The review proposal will see captains of industry incorporated into the top decision-making bodies of private universities to help review curricula, to ensure they are in line with trends in specific sectors of the economy. The CHE said executives from various industries would also be incorporated into teams that will review the courses.

The Kenyan government has come under intense pressure from employers over the quality of skills entering the job market, with concerns that science and technology courses are becoming increasingly rare. Employers have also said some graduates in other fields possess skills that are not in high demand in the market, exposing those graduates to joblessness.

Fears of worsening an already-biting youth unemployment problem prompted the government to call for the periodic reviews, educationists said.

"For many years we have called for a relook at the higher education sector to save the country from an otherwise outdated syllabus in most universities," said Stephen Wanjala, an educationist in Nairobi. "If well executed, the said reviews have the potential of reforming education in Kenya and helping to churn out strong human capital."

But educationists are questioning the wisdom of government's decision to exclude public universities from the plan, at a time when state institutions are grappling with concerns that some of their courses are out of touch with industry needs.

The call to review courses is among a raft of changes aimed at improving what institutions of higher learning teach and strengthening the country's technical skills.

Kenya's universities are grappling with a quality crisis, brought about by years of underfunding, strained infrastructure and a shortage of lecturers. External forces such as brain drain affecting the teaching staff have also conspired to hurt the sector.

Kenya has an estimated 8,000 lecturers and educationists have calculated that nearly double that number is needed to meet the country's higher education needs. But experts argue that the latest moves could lead to job losses for lecturers teaching courses that are facing the axe following reviews.

Educationists see the recent initiatives as attempts to improve Kenya's competitiveness in the region as markets expand through integration of the East African Community. In July last year, the EAC launched a common market that will see its five member countries opening up their borders to goods, labour and services.