‘Village universities’ expand access, but lower quality

The late Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s view of the university as a place where people’s minds are trained for independent thinking and problem solving at the highest level remained unchallenged for half a century in East Africa.

Even when conditions in universities deteriorated severely as a result of inadequate funding and low wages, political interference, overcrowding and heavy teaching loads, brain drain and inadequate infrastructure, Nyerere’s vision of academia remained uncontested.

But according to Ishmael Irungu Munene, an associate professor of research and educational leadership at Northern Arizona University in the United States, Kenya and Uganda are settling on marketisation of higher education – a model that is redefining views on the roles of universities in East Africa.

In a study, Profits and Pragmatism: The commercial lives of market universities in Kenya and Uganda, Munene says that while Uganda kicked off commercialisation of public higher education at Makerere University in the early 1990s, Kenya has taken the entrepreneurial public university to the village by establishing a multi-campus system.

In 2011, Kenya had only seven public universities. Since then the number has multiplied to 22 fully fledged universities and nine constituent colleges. Public universities have also established a labyrinth of campuses and learning sites across the country.

Propelled by an obsession to increase student enrolments, irrespective of academic shortfalls, universities have moved with unbridled speed to establish campuses and learning sites in facilities and buildings with businesses that are not aligned with higher education.

“Study centres have been turned into mere classrooms without libraries and the required learning materials,” says Munene in another study titled Multicampus University Systems: Africa and the Kenyan experience recently published by Routledge in a series on research into international and comparative education.

In essence, the system has turned into a competitive money-making venture rather than a genuine effort to establish institutions of academic excellence.

A problem of periphery

According to Munene, whereas academic facilities are expected to be paramount in Kenya’s public universities and university colleges, no peripheral campus can match the main campus in terms of learning facilities or the qualifications possessed by academics.

“Most branch campuses are staffed by masters degree holders with the exception of campus directors, most of whom hold PhDs or other doctoral qualifications.”

Reached for comment, Munene noted that while main campuses do have academics with only masters degrees, they outnumber satellite campuses in the number of doctoral holders.

Probably more seriously, academics at the professorial level are missing in peripheral campuses. “Where full-time staff is available in branch campuses, these comprise tutorial fellows, assistant lecturers and lecturers,” Munene told University World News.

Kenya’s ‘entrepreneurial universities’ are expanding access to higher education in villages, but there is little excitement about the degrees they offer. According to the study on multi-campus university systems, degrees and diplomas from those campuses show a consistent degree of homogeneity.

“There is a high concentration of undergraduate degrees, simply because they are easier to mount in terms of library resources and availability of part-time staff, who only need to possess a masters degree,” says the study.

There is also similarity in the degrees offered by branch campuses in fields of study, with most being in business studies, education, information technology, and the humanities and social sciences.

“The rarity of engineering, medical science and natural science programmes is spectacular,” adds the report.

According to students reached for comment at 11 branch campuses across Kenya, there are perceptions that the quality of education is low.

All about the money?

Researchers also noted that some degrees have been specifically developed for commercial gain and are too narrow in terms of academic content.

The crux of the matter is that peripheral campuses are ostensibly intended to generate revenue for main campus. According to Munene, central university administrations are resistant to creating credible structures that could evolve into potential competitors.

The peripheral nature of satellite campuses is also reflected in the absence of interest in or capacity to mount academic seminars, public lectures or conferences. The main campus is the epicentre of such activities, and has modern conference centres for them.

In his analysis of branch campuses, Munene argues that exclusion from important academic activities leaves them isolated and robs students and junior academics of mentorship, networking opportunities and space for testing new ideas.

Although the emerging entrepreneurial academia in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa has been credited with establishing an academic market niche that was absent in elitist African universities inherited from colonial powers, there are serious concerns about the subordination of scholarship.

According to Professor Crispus Kiamba, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the new dispensation was brought about by the government limiting funding for higher education.

“The government made it quite clear that it would no longer be able to fully finance public universities,” Kiamba told University World News.

Besides economic realities, in Kenya there have been strong political considerations and ethnic agitations for the government not just to broaden higher education catchment areas – to include older students, part-time students and those from minority populations – but also to respond to the clamour by different tribes to have universities in their districts and counties.

Towards this goal, the Kenyan government, probably more than any other in Sub-Saharan Africa, is swiftly abandoning the traditional model of unitary structured public universities in favour of mass institutions with tentacles in both urban and rural areas.

Not a model to be mimicked

Unfortunately, most satellite campuses as currently planned reflect disparities in education development that have colonial and post-independence historical roots. Rural campuses are located in areas that have lagged behind in education since the colonial era.

According to the study on multi-campus university systems in Kenya, such campuses are perceived as providing higher education opportunities to rural communities and their programming is generally in low-cost courses, especially social sciences and humanities.

“In contrast, campuses in favoured urban areas are principally viewed as cash-cow entities with academic programmes incorporating some science, professional courses in health, executive business management education, law, public policy, diplomacy and security studies,” Munene told University World News in an interview in Nairobi.

Although intense commercialisation and marketisation in Kenya is often seen as a courageous effort that could be mimicked in other African countries in order to rapidly expand access to university education, the model is opening up gaps of inequality and class differentiation in terms of who is gaining entry to higher education.

Satellite campuses – and even main campuses – admit that many students did not attain the cut-off points required for a student to be state-sponsored.

Taking into account that only a third of the 363,400 students currently enrolled in Kenya’s public multi-campus university system enjoy government sponsorship, socio-economic status has become the key determinant of who goes to the university.

Kenya may be succeeding in taking the university to the village, but there are many problems that need to be tackled before other African countries should start thinking that the answer to low participation rates in higher education has at last been found.