‘Degree mills’ are mushrooming, educationists warn

In a small shop on downtown Nairobi’s River Road, Stephen Njoroge goes through a pile of bound documents on a shelf above his photocopying machine. A smartly dressed, middle-aged man, an executive with a Kenyan oil marketing company, is waiting at the door. He is there to collect a masters thesis, which he has paid Njoroge US$705 to write.

Njoroge obtained a (genuine) undergraduate degree three years ago from the same public university at which the oil executive is enrolled for his masters. After picking up the document and handing over some cash, the oil executive dashes to a waiting car and is driven off.

Ordinarily, Njoroge does photocopying, typing and printing, which earns him at least US$15 a day. But he has a growing clientele for the far more lucrative service of essay writing.

Welcome to the mushrooming version of degree mills in Kenya, where students are buying their way to degrees.

Njoroge, under tight deadlines, took two weeks to write the oil executive’s thesis. “All he did was to give me the research topic. I had to prepare the questionnaires. He distributed them to would-be-respondents and brought them back. The rest was for me to do,” he said, adding that he had visited a library in town to compose the literature review.

To cope with this expanding service, Njoroge hired somebody to assist with typing. In some cases, he told University World News, “what the clients need is just editing. For others, you do the entire job including data collection.”

Njoroge is not alone in this business. Educationists in Nairobi believe many would-be graduates are seeking such services, undermining quality in higher education institutions.

Such businesses are said to be mushrooming around universities. While they are not a new phenomenon, they are growing along with the number of students in universities.

Some experts also blame the rise in ‘essay mills’ on negligence on the part of lecturers and administrators, who are not keeping a close enough eye on students and the work they produce.

While the trend is mainly prevalent among postgraduate students, who are usually working individuals and who must take time out of their busy schedules to attend classes, it is also becoming rampant among undergraduate students.

A similar business is to be found at a building near the University of Nairobi’s main campus, just off Nairobi’s central business district. A chat with a student entering the premises discloses the happenings behind the scenes in the five-storey building.

The student, who identified himself only as "Mercy", explained that the premises do "assignments for ‘parallel’ students" (those on fee-levying courses) and charge them. Once a lecturer issues an assignment, a ‘class’ is held at the premises and students are taken through the assignment, "giving the students answers”.

When I visited the premises, a ‘class’ was in session. On my enquiring, the owner of the premises, Ronald Kiprop, said all he did was offer private tuition for students. “I don’t give them answers. I show them how to deal with similar questions,” said the masters graduate, who specialises in finance, accounting and other technical subjects.

Regulator, universities worried

The Commission for University Education or CUE, the higher education regulator, has taken note of the trend and has warned that it is damaging the quality of graduates. In its latest in-house bulletin, CUE said the quality of learning, especially in postgraduate training, was at risk as a result of increasing cases of cheating.

Last month the commission hosted a seminar for educationists in a bid to arrest this situation. Head of the CUE Professor David Some said: “The hiring of these ‘research assistants’ is the height of academic plagiarism, which is hurting the quality of university education.

“If caught, such students would face the full force of law for perpetrating this academic crime.”

In public, Kenya’s university administrators are optimistic that the quality of education is intact. But in private, they too are concerned that institutions could be graduating half-baked students.

“We would be keen to investigate these cases if they are brought to us,” said an administrator at a public university who requested not to be named, as he is not the institution’s official spokesperson.

In recent years, employers have been raising concerns that while higher education has been producing growing numbers of graduates – estimated at more than 10,000 annually – many lack the technical skills desperately needed by the economy.

These concerns saw the government in 2011 order a fresh round of inspections of private universities and colleges, to ensure that quality programmes were being offered to students. But the results of this audit are yet to be made public or the recommendations implemented.