By Wachira Kigotho
The speed at which colleges in Kenya have been fabricating degrees is worrying.
Currently there are more than 800 degree programmes in the 22 public universities and their seven constituent colleges.
Additional degree courses are also offered through franchise partnerships with private academic garages.
But whereas there is nothing radically wrong with duplication of degrees across universities, the underlying concern is that some degrees are reproduced in different faculties, often appearing with different names. The other tragedy is that areas of study are fragmented in order to increase the number of degrees offered in a particular field.
On the face of it, Kenya’s university education system appears robust in terms of access but hard questions are emerging as to whether most of the degrees are a good investment.
Dr Carol Bidemi, an expert on higher education in East Africa, says the problem started in 2000 when the government under the instigation of the World Bank embraced commercialisation and entrepreneurial spirit as the engine to drive university education.
In perfect competition, public universities debunked their original missions as centres of excellence in specific areas and moved headlong to duplicate degrees of one another and also created new ones, popularly dubbed as market demand-driven degree courses.
“In order to attract full-cost paying students, the universities developed degrees that were intended to provide immediate knowledge and skills in job market,” says Dr Bidemi.
The outcome was fabrication of new soft degree courses in tourism, hospitality, event and convention management, environmental studies, counselling, recreation and leisure management, community resource management, sports management, entrepreneurship, project planning, small-scale business management, disaster management and peace studies among others.
In effect, the banality in which public universities have created new degrees in the last 10 years is almost a scandal in higher education as it is almost impossible to distinguish offerings of elite public universities and academic garages.
Whereas some of those programmes could have been studied as course units in traditional degree formats, they are currently offered as stand alone degree courses. Nonetheless, apart from having fancy names, some of them are shell degrees that do not attract employers.
Besides, it is rather blurred as to why a university should duplicate its own degree programmes.
Close scrutiny at the Joint Admissions Board website indicates that Kenyatta University is offering five degrees in environmental studies or science and include Bachelor of Science (Environmental Health), Bachelor of Environmental Science, Bachelor of Environmental Studies (Environmental Resource Conservation), Bachelor of Environmental Studies (Community Development and Bachelor of Environment Planning and Management.
Instead of possibly offering a comprehensive four-year degree in agriculture, the same university has a stable of new Bachelor of Science degrees in agricultural sciences that include, Bachelor of Science (Agricultural Resource Management), Bachelor of Science (Dryland Agriculture and Enterprise Development), Bachelor of Science (Crop Science ) and Bachelor of Science (Crop Improvement and Protection).
So far, it is not just in Kenyatta University where degrees seem to be fragmented, possibly in order to attract more students.
The problem cuts across all public universities. Egerton University is offering Bachelor of Science (Natural Resources Management) and Bachelor of Science (Integrated Forest Resources Management). Also on offer are two related degrees, Bachelor of Science (Environmental Science) and Bachelor of Science (Soil, Environmental and Land Use Management).
In order to reap maximum financial benefits, some universities are also offering narrow undergraduate degree programmes. Some of those include Bachelor of Science (Project Planning), Bachelor of Science (Ethnobotany), Bachelor of Science (Soil Science), Bachelor of Science (Agronomy) and Bachelor of Science (Strategic Management) just to mention a few. Ordinarily, such courses could be offered as units in undergraduate programmes and thereafter those interested could pursue them at postgraduate level.
Granted that knowledge is expanding rapidly in the 21st century, it would not be prudent for a student to take four years studying for a degree that is too thin in terms of content and in an area that would require support from other disciplines.
Whereas it would make sense for a student to study for a single-subject degree as BSc (Economics) or BA (Sociology), it would be foolhardy to spend four years for a BSc (Ecotourism) or BA (Gender Studies). The crux of the matter is that such narrow fields could be effectively studied as course units in a revamped Bachelor of Arts degree.
However, craft of fabricating, duplicating and minting of new degrees has intensified with elevation of former middle-level colleges into full-fledged universities.
Most of these universities have upgraded diploma courses to degree status without adding value to them. For instance, diploma courses in catering, pharmaceutical studies, building construction, medical laboratory technology, leather technology, surveying and so many others have been tagged as Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Technology degrees.
Nevertheless, the main problem is that few resources in terms of professors and lecturers, laboratories, workshops and libraries have been improved to boost learning resources.
Recent concerns raised by several professional bodies indicated that some universities have very limited capacity to offer professional degrees and too often rely on part-time lecturers some of whom are not professionals in areas that they are hired to teach.
Unfortunately, the new fabrication of new degrees is often regarded by professors and even by the general public as a mark of innovation and creativity that rejuvenate cash-strapped universities.
But it is quite annoying in that most of the new degrees have formed the largest segment of university qualifications that most employers do not want.
While an employer would readily shortlist for an interview a graduate holding a Bachelor of Commerce degree, a human resources manager in a medium-sized company would hesitate to interview a graduate holding a Bachelor of Science (Financial Engineering) degree. The issue is that too often employers are interested in persons holding a degree that is designed to provide a wide range of managerial skills, while at the same time has competence in a specific area.
Although universities argue that some of their new courses are popular, some of those degrees have ruined careers of so many brilliant students.
For instance when the Ministry of Defence advertised the recruitment of specialist officers into the Kenya Defence Forces, one key requirement was that applicants must be registered by their respective professional bodies. Quite regrettably, few if any of those new fabricated degrees in public universities are recognised by local or international registration and regulatory bodies.
Undoubtedly, the military was just following the common trend in the country where employers, whether in the public or in the private sector, are demanding registration status of graduates in engineering, medicine, architecture and surveying while lawyers are expected to hold degrees that are recognised by the local Council of Legal Education.
Graduates seeking managerial jobs in the business sector or industry are in many instances also required to have acquired full professional status in accounting, finance, marketing or insurance in addition to their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees.
The craze by public universities in Kenya to duplicate or fabricate degrees has also been noted in Uganda, where public universities have been accused of establishing valueless degrees in order to attract students. Prof Mahmood Mamdani says the proliferation of inter-disciplinary programmes but without anchor in core disciplines in public universities has resulted in the devaluation of higher education.
These included undergraduate degrees in urban planning, environmental studies, secretarial studies and development studies. Others were diluted postgraduate programmes in mathematics, economic policy and planning, human rights, refugee law and forced migration, ethics and public management, peace and conflict resolution.
“This low level training is better described as ‘vocationalisation’ that is traditionally associated with community-based colleges,” says Prof Mamdani who is the Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research. He is also the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs in Columbia University.
For Kenyans, it does not matter whether those new degrees are offered locally or in Uganda or anywhere else in the region, taking into account that Kenyan students are major importers of higher education in East Africa.
However, the main worry is that despite their academic weaknesses and low quality, those degrees are recognised by the Commission for University Education and the Uganda’s National Commission for Higher Education, basically by virtue of being offered by elite public universities.
Some of the issues raised in this article are just the tip of the iceberg of the prevailing situation in higher education in Kenya and elsewhere that Kenyan students go to for higher education.
For most young people, the nagging question is what has gone wrong with university education, taking into account that a degree has always been considered as an entry point to a good job and favourable future career prospects.
But what they do not know is that not all degrees are pointers to future success.
In essence some degrees, no matter how one looks at it, have too little value to help anyone to enter the labour market with some advantage or even with scanty survival skills.
Bluntly put, some university degrees represent declining value for money and have many students and their parents worried whether the investment is worthwhile.
Nevertheless, despite these severe shortcomings, universities in Kenya and so many others in the region can become beacons of technological and economic transformation.
But for them to achieve that critical mantle, those universities would have to undergo radical reforms and stop behaving as siblings or equals of back-street academic garages.
Dr Bidemi says professors and lecturers in public universities should be accorded time to undertake research, instead of being over-stretched in teaching courses that would better be offered in junior colleges.
She argued that most lecturers are almost burned-out having been overworked and over-burdened. “Subsequently, there is need to control too rapid growth of programmes that are hastily marketed to students,” says Dr Bidemi.
For the government the time has come to show leadership not simply by urging vice-chancellors to raise sufficient funds by attracting many privately-sponsored students but to recognise that universities exist for public good and should be supported adequately.