East Africa has registered phenomenal growth and expansion of higher education in the past two decades and opened opportunities for high school leavers to pursue degree programmes.
The massive expansion has also given a second chance to adults, who had missed out on university education, to enrol for degree courses and obtain higher qualifications to enhance their skills and competencies and secure them a chance for career progression.
Across the region, the universities have introduced flexible models of admission and curriculum delivery that have made it easier for learners to pursue courses of their choice and at a time of their convenience.
The range of courses has increased, giving students more options than ever before. A number of universities have opened satellite campuses in a drive to take higher education to the localities.
Equally, some international universities have opened up campuses in the region, bringing quality education to the doorstep of East Africans and at fairly lower costs.
The use of technology has also become a common practice in higher education.
Records from the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), the regional organisation responsible for development and co-ordination of university education and research, indicate that the region had 361 higher education institutions offering degrees at the end of 2015. These range from full-fledged universities to middle-level colleges that collaborate with universities within and outside the region to offer degree programmes.
Kenya, for example, had 69 universities, among them 33 public with a student enrolment of about 500,000.
In total, more than one million students were enrolled for degree programmes in East Africa’s higher education institutions in 2015.
Collectively, the universities offer a wide range of degree programmes from bachelor’s to doctorate levels, offering many options for high school leavers or adults seeking higher and continuing education.
The universities have devised various models of admission, delivery and supervision of learning and teaching.
For starters, they offer regular admission to high school leavers based on their performance in the national examinations. However, the second module, popularly known variously as parallel, evening or modular, has gained traction.
Additionally, universities have gone big on online courses either directly from their campuses or in partnership with other institutions abroad. Open online courses (Moocs) are also available. Collectively, these allow students to access higher education and achieve their life goals in a manner they find convenient.
The diversification of admission models has seen significant increase in student enrolment.
Private investors on a roller-coaster
One of the remarkable developments is the fact that private universities, which previously enrolled low numbers, have expanded their admissions with some boasting large numbers that easily compare with the old and established public universities. For example, Mount Kenya University, based in Thika, Kenya, has about 60,000 students located in more than 10 campuses across the region.
In particular, the dramatic rise in the number of universities is attributed to investment by religious organisations and private entrepreneurs. In Kenya, for example, the number of private universities outweighs the public ones.
Part of the reason is that the public universities went through a cash crunch in the late 1980s and early 1990s arising from the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which badly affected their programmes and opened doors for private investors. Since, the private investors have been on a roller-coaster, as they became more attractive and endearing to students and parents.
Another significant development in recent times is the move to create a common higher education zone within East Africa in line with the Common Market Protocol that came into force in July 2010 giving the impetus of a unified approach to development of universities in the region.
Specifically, the protocol provides for free movement of goods and services across the region, and this puts the focus on the universities to train and produce graduates who have comparable skills and competences to compete and work across the region.
Similarly, the protocol offers an opportunity for academicians to work in any university in the region and jointly collaborate on research and innovation. All these lead to the creation of a common higher education zone in the mould of the European Union, which has standardised criteria for admission, teaching and quality assurance.
The immediate advantage of the common higher education zone is that students seeking higher education opportunities have a wide range of institutions to choose from; they will no longer be restricted to study and work in their home countries.
In the long term, having more universities leads to reduced cost of tuition, as the institutions compete for students. Also, they will have to raise their standards to measure up to the regional protocol and to give them a competitive advantage.
Subsequent to this, the IUCEA has been working with universities and higher education regulators in the region to develop a common framework for quality standards and assurance that give a common benchmark for comparing what universities are doing.
Already, IUCEA has launched several publications to give direction on the implementation of the common higher education area. An East African qualifications framework for higher education has been also been launched.
According to the secretary-general of the East African Community, Dr Richard Sezibera, implementation of the common higher education zone will ensure that the member states develop comprehensive training curriculum and effective delivery models to prepare graduates for competition within a bigger playing field.
However, it has emerged from a study by Infotrak that the push for harmonisation is not known by many stakeholders in the region.
The study, which was commissioned by the Nation Media Group to establish the status of university education in the region, reports that employers and students were particularly unaware of the harmonisation plan, an anomaly that was likely to jeopardise its implementation. For that reason, therefore, IUCEA and the national higher education regulators must mount aggressive sensitisation campaigns to popularise the plan and get buy-in from the populace.
Centres of excellence
Another emerging trend is pursuit of common research and innovation programmes. Already, the World Bank is working with the IUCEA to identify and support universities in East and Central Africa to host centres of excellence in science and technology, agriculture, health, education and applied statistics. Other initiatives are also underway.
The African Union, for example, is championing the Pan-African University initiative that involves creating centres of excellence in different disciplines within existing universities in the continent. In East Africa, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture has been selected as one of the centres of excellence focusing on basic sciences, technology and innovation.
Also, the German Government, through its agency DAAD, is fostering collaboration on research among universities in the region. In Kenya, it is supporting agriculture research at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, Nyeri, while in Rwanda, the German’s FH Bingen University of Applied Sciences is working with the Catholic University in Ruhengeri. Additionally, German’s University of Vechta is co-operating with Tanzania’s Catholic St Augustine University in research.
The British Council has also established the Newton Fund to support professional development and technical training in science and innovation in sub-Saharan African, offering opportunities for East African researchers.
Efforts to mainstream research, science, technology and innovation in African universities are beginning to bear fruits. Findings of a study by Thomson Reuters that were presented at African Association of Universities (AAU) conference in June 2015 in Kigali, indicated that Africa’s research inputs were on the rise.
In a paper entitled Research Outputs and Impact in Africa presented by Dr Philip Purnell, it was reported that Africa’s research outputs had increased three times in the past decade, putting the continent in a pivotal position regarding contributions to the world’s new knowledge.
Even so, the expansion has not all been rosy. Many challenges exist. The first is inadequate funding. Given the rising number of student enrolments, governments are unable to provide commensurate capitation for infrastructure development and subsidies for living expenditures.
In Kenya, there were six public universities in 2003/04, with an enrolment of 58,000, and they got an allocation of Kshh7.4 billion ($72.5 million). A decade later, the number of public universities grew to 35 with an enrolment of 400,000 students and were given an allocation of Ksh58 billion ($569 million). In absolute terms, this means that the per capita student funding has gone down.
The second is quality. Most universities have expanded without corresponding infrastructure and resources. There are few lecturers to go round and given the large numbers of students, most faculty members are stretched.
Add to the fact that the universities are unable to provide all the teaching and learning resources due to scarcity of funds and the situation becomes grim. Findings of the Infotrak study bring out this clearly. Employers interviewed expressed concern that some graduates do not have the skills and competences required in the job market, rendering them unemployable despite good academic qualifications. Main areas of their weaknesses are: Communication, work ethic and relationships.
Indeed, the findings corroborated an earlier study by IUCEA entitled Study Report on the Status of Higher Education in EAC, which reported that 63 per cent of East African graduates were not ready for the job market.
Further, the IUCEA study indicated that two-thirds of lecturers do not have training in pedagogy, meaning they do not have skills to teach. It is for this reason that some universities such as Makerere, Nairobi, Kenyatta and Jomo Kenyatta have organised programmes specifically to train lecturers on pedagogy.
Uganda has signed a multibillion shilling deal for research and to train lecturers at master’s and PhD levels. Under the deal, more than 100 PhD students and 230 master’s students will be trained for Makerere, Gulu, Busitema and Mbarara universities.
The third challenge is research and innovation, which are critical components of university education. Declining funding and the fact that lecturers are engrossed in teaching create a situation where research is never prioritised and that blunts the universities’ abilities to engage in cutting innovation.
Although the push for common higher education has gained traction, the challenge exists about the different education curricula pursued across the region. Tanzania and Uganda have the 7-4-2-3 system introduced in pre-Independence by the British colonial administration. However, Kenya dropped that and went for 8-4-4, while Rwanda and Burundi pursue 2-6-4-4 system. In this context, questions arise about the admission criteria that should be used when the countries have different education structures.
Fourth, despite the growth in number of universities, the range of courses on offer is constricted. Most courses are duplicated from one university to another, the only difference being the name. For example, courses in business management, education, communication are offered in practically all universities across the region.
Even universities that originally started as niche institutions have veered off their path to get into the so-called market-driven courses to the detriment of their specialty.
Fifth, graduate unemployment has emerged as a major challenge in recent years. Reasons for this include mismatch between training and the labour market, lack of programmes to expose students to the work environments and the universities’ focus on academic rather than practical training.
A study commissioned by the British Council in four African countries, among them Kenya, indicated that most graduates left university without basic technical and transferable skills, hence were ill-prepared for the job market. The report, Can Higher Education Solve Africa’s Job Crisis: Understanding Graduate Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, puts graduate unemployment in Kenya at 15.7 per cent.
Even more graphically, the report says it takes an average five years for a graduate to secure a job. The thrust of this is that graduate unemployment is critical challenge.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Efforts by the IUCEA and national governments to introduce common quality standards, promote joint academic and research programmes, allow cross-country movement of students and lecturers as well as university-private sector partnerships provide solid foundations for transforming university education in the region.
Mr Aduda has extensive experience in education research and reporting.