The dangerous rise of neo-liberal universities

A new school of thought is emerging in East Africa which challenges the rise of the academic capitalism inspired by rabid marketisation of university programmes and challenges the idea of the current university system as an effective vehicle for social and economic development.

Crystallising around Ishmael Irungu Munene, a Kenyan scholar and professor of education at Northern Arizona University in the United States, the theorists are troubled by the vocationalisation of the higher education curriculum and a focus on offering more academic programmes as opposed to basic and fundamental degree courses.

They are also concerned about neglect of basic and fundamental research in favour of contract and applied research, in addition to universities putting emphasis on teaching instead of research.

Institutional decay and identity crises

The central thesis of the group is that the new market regime in higher education in East Africa and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa has not only altered the nature of academic work but has led to institutional decay and identity crises.

“Currently, many African universities are in a dilemma as to how they define themselves, especially in their role as vanguards of knowledge creation and dissemination,” Munene told University World News in Nairobi.

Against the backdrop of the historical development of universities in Kenya, the group faults the market university as a poor vehicle with which to drive the country’s social and economic development as it has failed to incorporate African indigenous knowledge, new ideas and innovation into university curricula.

In a study, “African Indigenous Education in Kenyan Universities – A decolonizing and transformational tool”, Munene and Professor Njoki Wane, chair of the department of social justice education at University of Toronto in Canada, argue that the decay of Kenyan universities has been hastened by the adoption of an entrepreneurial ‘multiversity’ system model.

According to Munene and Wane’s study, recently published as a chapter in the International Handbook of Holistic Education (first edition), development of the market university in Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa is a lost opportunity to conceptualise a radical higher education system geared towards holistic social and economic change based on cultural and environmental factors.

Cash cows

The authors argue that neither useful African indigenous knowledge, new ideas nor innovation have been integrated into the neo-liberal multiversity model in Kenya, or elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, where crass vocationalisation of degrees, diplomas and a wide range of short certificate courses have been turned into cash cows for public universities.

According to Professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda, a critic of commercialisation of academic programmes in African universities, neo-liberal education reforms have ended up creating a cash-nexus environment instead of improving the quality of higher education and academic scholarship.

Neo-liberalism in public universities in Sub-Saharan Africa started in Makerere University in the early 1990s, when the cash-starved public university launched a dual track policy that accommodated privately-sponsored students who paid full-cost tuition fees upfront.

By 2000, full-cost tuition paying students in Makerere rose to 70%, while government-sponsored students remained at 30%. “This moved Makerere from the brink of collapse to the point where it aspires to become one of East Africa’s pre-eminent intellectual capacity-building resources, as it was in the 1960s,” said Dr David Court, a former World Bank higher education consultant.


Taking its cue from Makerere’s experience, Kenya’s higher education turning point came in 2000 when neo-liberalism was adopted as the guiding star to the development of public universities in the 21st century.

Under the new system, the state’s role in higher education was restricted to policy formulation, accreditation, regulation and access, while market forces took over development of public universities in terms of resource generation and academic programming.

Affirming the government’s commitment to the entrepreneurial university, in 2004, the late Professor George Saitoti, then education minister, stated: “Universities in Kenya are being called upon to adopt business-like management styles and generate income internally.”

Although the intended goal was to raise funds, the change quickly crushed the elitist national development university model and gave way to the rise of the current amorphous satellite-campus university system.

Multiversity model

The term multiversity was originally coined in 1982 by Clark Kerr, a United States university administrator and economics professor, to describe a multicentred and multifunctional institution.

According to Munene and his associates, the main features of the prevailing multiversity model in Kenya include high competition for students, duplication of university missions, replication of courses in university departments, decapitation or dilution of degree programmes, heavy reliance on part-time lecturers, minimal research, overcrowding and a poor learning environment.

Intense marketisation has also forced universities to establish satellite campuses to cater for soaring numbers of privately-sponsored students in 'market-driven’ courses.

According to Daniel Sifuna, a professor of education at Kenyatta University, and critic of multiversity education, a large segment of academic staff comprises unqualified, floating staff hired to teach on a part-time basis. “Market-force dynamics, rather than academic competence and capacity to do research, have come to define the shape and fate of the teaching force,” Sifuna told University World News.

Against the backdrop of regional, ethnic and tribal competition in the country, some of the branch campuses have become autonomous universities, but they are unequal and inferior academic competitors of their former main campuses.

While in 2005 Kenya had only six full-fledged public universities, the country now has 32, an increase of over 533% in just 13 years.

According to Munene and his group, the proliferation of universities and duplication of courses without regard to the quality of lecturers and teaching and learning resources mean the multiversity model will fail.

The emerging thinking is that while the national development model of public universities failed to deliver on the promise of socio-economic development in Africa, there are indications that the commercial multiversity model is also becoming a disappointment.

Indigenous knowledge

Munene and Wane argue that the root cause of failure of African universities to transform the continent is because they never aspired to alter Western epistemology and declined to integrate African indigenous knowledge. “There had been no attempt to capture in academic programmes aspects of African indigenous knowledge systems that enabled African societies to survive and prosper for centuries,” they write.

For the proponents of the new school of thought, African academia based on neo-liberal values has become a mere copy of the Western university tradition. In this regard African universities and their scholars hardly question Western epistemologies and methodologies of knowledge production and have become more Eurocentric in their approach to academic scholarship.

However, the new school of thought seems to have produced more questions than answers as it has not pinpointed exactly what should be taught in African universities and how such knowledge should be disseminated.

However, according to Munene and his associates, their intention is not to produce quick solutions but to open a debate as to why it has been difficult to decolonise the curriculum and thinking.

“The issue is that just like the colonial and national development models of universities in Africa, the neo-liberal epoch is foreign initiated,” Munene told University World News.

He said attempts to transform a system that had foreign roots by adding more foreign concepts in order to make it more relevant only masks the maladies affecting the sector and hence its failure in national development.

Even if one does not entirely agree with Munene and his group, they have generated ideas and widened debate about the need to reform the African university. But questions remain about who is to blame for the quagmire and why it is taking so long to fix the problem.