Don-turned-presidential hopeful vows to redeem HE

A Kenyan professor aspiring to become president in the country’s upcoming general election says, if elected, he will give priority to higher education and redeem the image of the Kenyan system.

According to Professor Michael Wainaina, a former lecturer in Kenyatta University’s department of literature, his quest to run for president in the 8 August polls aims to “inspire and invest in the next generation of youth and transform higher education” in East Africa’s largest economy.

“If elected, I would like to help set up the first ever millennial university of Kenya, a model to be emulated across Africa,” he told University World News in a recent interview in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Wainaina (45) is among eight presidential candidates who were last week cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to run for the top office in the forthcoming general election.

A new dawn

Running as an independent candidate on the slogan “A new dawn in Kenya”, Wainaina has triggered a social media sensation, attracting thousands of followers through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He has his own website, blog and YouTube channel known as “Youthify and Modernize Kenya”.

Wainaina says that university quality has suffered owing to a lack of sufficient funding.

“When I went to the university in the '90s, the universities then used to be places where people would go to gain knowledge, but in the first decade of the new millennium there came the argument for ‘access’ that led to ‘massification’,” he said, referring to a trend that has seen public institutions of higher learning admit increasing numbers of students in a move seen by many, including Wainaina, as a way of making money.

Expansion without investment

“The universities expanded exponentially in the first decade of the new millennium without any commensurate expansion in resources, infrastructure and human capital,” he said, adding that the average university student today was not enrolled to gain knowledge and skills but to get a piece of paper.

“As I stayed in the university,” he said, “[my position] became untenable as I couldn’t reconcile myself with the university that I had gone to 15 or 20 years before, and what it had now become,” he said.

Wainaina is concerned that the quality of higher education has been compromised and, if elected, he wants to redeem the image of higher education in Kenya. Universities had become a conveyor belt, he said, which young people ride to acquire knowledge and skills, and leave for the marketplace.

He believes that behind the clamour for massification is money: universities wanted to make money and admitting as many students as possible was their way of making it, he said.

Massification was “short-changing” students and the next generation, he said.

Poor regulation

He also laid the blame for the problems in higher learning institutions at the door of the regulatory bodies which he said had failed to crack the whip.

“The sickness in the universities can be explained by the sickness in the regulatory bodies,” he said.

“And, if they [universities] are not interested in the quality of education they are giving, ultimately the person who suffers is the young person,” he said. “We end up with a country where young people can be classified in three categories: the un-educated, under-educated and mis-educated.”

Since independence from the British in 1963, Wainaina said successive governments had tried to approach the youth question as a problem [that needs] to be solved.

Youth as resource

“What I am trying to do is to change that paradigm; youth is not a problem to be solved, it is a resource to be developed,” he said.

"The reason I am running [for president] is to inspire and invest in the next generation of young men and women who will modernise this country,” he added.

Wainaina said his new millennial university will prioritise quality over access.

“You need to have a university where the argument of quality always wins over the argument of access, and the only way to do that is to designate a millennial university of Kenya, where we set the standards for higher education,” he said.

To address the burgeoning challenge of youth unemployment, Wainaina said, if elected, he intends to institute job skills training and government-sponsored internships for university students.

With employers constantly looking for new skills, the programme would enable young people to acquire the skills required for the marketplace.

The current education system produces young people who have information but no skills, he said.

“It’s a huge problem.”

Skills development

In addition, the Kenyan scholar promises to build national infrastructure for youth development and support across the country; centres where young people would go for mentoring, training and network support.

He says he also intends to reverse the trend whereby universities are removed from the “real” African experience and instead encourage relevant research to inform public policy.

According to the Kenyan don, Western-influenced academia may not be the best for Africa.

“I became very cynical about the academic process because the people at the academy speak to themselves,” he said.

“We do research from Western books and use Western theories, we publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. Where’s the African experience?”

“When we are looking at the quagmire facing the young people, the academy is not helping solve those issues; it’s part of the problem,” he said.

Two-horse race

Although confident, Wainaina’s chances of election are not guaranteed. Local commentators believe the election is likely to be a two-horse race. Incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election, faces a strong contest from his main challenger and former prime minister Raila Odinga, who is leading the opposition coalition.

According to Bloomberg News, the outcome of the hotly contested election may involve a run-off vote if turnout in opposition strongholds is high.

Kenyatta and Odinga have near-equal support among ethnic voting blocs, and if opposition supporters defy expectations and raise turnout in swing counties by 10%, that would spur a follow-up vote, according to analysts quoted by Bloomberg.

Wainaina says he believes Kenyans will make the right choice.

“The time to intervene for young people is now.”