Ministry mulls new masters degree guidelines

Kenya is mulling over new university guidelines that will require masters students to publish at least one article in a refereed journal before being eligible to graduate.

The proposal, crafted by the Commission for University Education or CUE, the country’s higher education regulator, is envisioned to push up the level of research in universities and the quality of graduates. The proposals are yet to be discussed with stakeholders – a legal requirement.

The proposed changes to masters degree requirements are the latest in a series of guidelines from the Ministry of Education, which has tightened the noose on masters students and lecturers.

New layers of guidelines

In the past year masters students have been slapped with other regulatory requirements, the most recent being that they complete their course in two years. Previously, masters students were not required to publish research in refereed journals and could take as long as five years to complete.

The proposed guidelines mean masters students will now have a heavier workload which must be achieved within a shorter period. Those studying while working could be forced to take leave.

Given that a paper can take as long as two years to go through the peer-review system, with no guarantee of a positive outcome, it also means students may have to wait longer to graduate.

Furthermore, those who seek a career in academia will only become eligible for a full lectureship after obtaining a doctorate.

Guidelines that came into effect at the beginning of last year require that holders of masters degrees – no matter the years of experience or number of publications – are only be able to be appointed as junior lecturers and tutorial fellows.

The move also saw the threshold for being appointed to professor pushed higher. Previously academics were required to accumulate only 10 application points from scholarly writing, whereas a professorial appointment now requires a minimum of 60 points.

“CUE may have to rethink this requirement, important as it may be,” said University of Nairobi lecturer Dr John Habwe, because of the lack of good research facilities at universities in Kenya.

Opinion divided

The new draft guidelines have sharply divided opinion in academia.

Proponents argue that the move will create a new crop of accomplished researchers and improve the quality of research since the papers will be subject to peer review.

University of Nairobi Professor Tom Odhiambo commented in one of the Kenyan dailies that the new requirements could help to “weed out fake professors and PhD holders” and “stem the tide of hundreds of MA degree holders teaching all manner of courses in Kenyan universities”.

It could also help “justify the huge salaries” paid to senior managers in university research divisions, cut off a deluge of NGO reports, term papers and ‘fake’ research papers from ‘research and theses bureaus’ across the country, and help streamline research at the departmental level.

Opponents of the guidelines believe Kenya is setting the standard for a masters far too high – the move could discourage thousands of potential researchers from pursuing the degrees.

“It is common knowledge that most of our universities are poorly funded and are struggling with heavy financial burdens, poor teaching facilities and lack of research resources,” wrote Habwe.

“Even lecturers and professors are not able to conduct internationally competitive research in their fields of specialisation and publish their findings in refereed journals.” It was impractical for CUE to expect masters students to publish a paper before graduating.

In the past five years, Kenya has seen a rapid rise in masters enrolments, as professionals seek extra qualifications to improve their career opportunities. This has seen nearly all major universities establish business schools to teach MBAs and other high-demand courses.

At the same time, the country has been struggling to match rising enrolments with teaching staff. The number of professors in public universities has risen by a measly 11% in three years while student numbers have soared by 56% over the past five years – from 140,000 in 2010 to some 450,000 this academic year – generating a rising student-to-lecturer ratio.