We must bite the bullet on university reforms


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Higher education is at a crossroads and requires a serious rethink.

Radical measures are inevitable to re-engineer the sector and put it on a pedestal. But that requires courage and resolute determination to push through the reforms.

A couple of weeks ago, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha directed universities and the Commission for University Education (CUE) to conduct simultaneous consultations and make proposals to redeem universities.

The point of departure was that non-viable universities and programmes should be scrapped or merged to make economic and professional sense.

From the outset, the merger option was stridently opposed by university management and unions.

Not surprisingly, the vice chancellors’ caucus has since published and submitted proposals to the minister with the overriding rejection of mergers.

Nonetheless, they were unequivocal that courses and programmes duplicated across universities ought to be scrapped or integrated with others in institutions best suited to offer them.

Also, they propose staff rationalisation and cost-cutting to reduce expenditures and return universities to financial stability.

The VCs’ position is not difficult to understand. It’s never realistic to expect those engrossed in programmes or projects to turn around and cut them.

And not when it threatens existential interests and jeopardising careers.

The CUE is expected to submit its proposals soon and, ideally, together with the VCs’ report, should provide clear direction to recalibrate higher education.

But, the push for higher education reforms should be determined by practical realities, devoid of sentimental feelings.

Massive expansion of universities in the past three decades, peaking with the mass chartering of public institutions in 2013, set the country on a slippery path.

Establishment of universities is whimsical, largely driven by populist political pronouncements, but ignores the national needs and resource requirements.

Consequently, we have created more universities than we need. Worse, the universities duplicate programmes and do not create value.

Even what had started as specialised or technical universities lost vision and went the mass market route.

In the end, we have too many institutions that consume so much public resources without a commensurate return on investment.

Equally troubling is the declining quality due to lack of finances and personnel.

It does not make sense to hang on to many universities just because they provide jobs for homeboys.

Neither should we be held captive to political interests. South Africa and Rwanda took the painful decision to cut the number of universities and turned around higher education. Kenya has reached that critical moment.

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