Market survey: Quality of learning declining as universities expand

Thursday April 14 2016

Ndejje University students. The number of

Ndejje University students. The number of female students registered for science, engineering and technology courses has increased remarkably in recent years following massive expansion. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI  

By DAVID ADUDA

The number of female students registered for science, engineering and technology courses has increased remarkably in recent years following massive expansion of universities in East Africa, a new study reveals.

With the rapid expansion, universities have introduced new courses, changed modes of admission and teaching and learning programmes to suit the needs of diverse groups seeking higher education.

Many universities have introduced online, modular and evening courses that allow flexibility and encourage more deserving students to register for programmes of their choice. Technology and innovation have emerged as key elements of university education in the region.

These are some of the findings of the study entitled: “Market Research Survey: East African University Guide” that was commissioned by the Nation Media Group and conducted by Infotrak. The study was conducted in October and November 2015 and targeted university managers, employers, professional bodies, students and recruitment agencies.

It focused on five distinct areas: policies on university education, academic programmes, career choices and employment opportunities, student life, research and innovation.

Despite the growth, the study shows that the old public universities, namely, Dar es Salaam, Makerere, Nairobi and Rwanda are still held in high esteem by students and employers. But others such as Kyambogo, Kenyatta, Busitema and Jomo Kenyatta University are equally regarded highly.

A number of private universities have also evolved as high quality learning centres and take credit for providing relatively better facilities and offering market-driven courses. For example in Kenya, Strathmore, United States International University, Kenya Methodist University, Mount Kenya, Baraton, African Nazarene and Presbyterian University are regarded highly by employers.

However, the study indicates that the expansion has come at a cost. Quality of teaching and learning has declined because of large numbers of students, shortage of lecturers and lack of equipment and other resources. Even worrying is the report that cheating has become rampant in universities while at the same time students take shortcuts like paying lecturers to pass practical projects and assignments. Also, graduate unemployment has risen considerably either because of lack of jobs or sheer unemployable skills.

Career choices

In terms of career choices, the study established marketable and non-marketable courses from the perspectives of students, universities, recruitment agencies and employers. Thus, some of the courses classified as marketable by the respondents included business administration, accounting, information technology, engineering, law, medicine.

Conversely, the following courses were listed among the least marketable: anthropology, theology, philosophy, geology, fisheries, disaster management, natural sciences and criminology.

Although there was broad consensus, there were also areas of variations among the five East African countries in terms of the marketability of courses. For example, education, and agriculture were found to be popular in Tanzania while journalism, tourism and sociology the least marketable. Yet the reverse was the case in Kenya, where education and agriculture were among the least marketable courses.

In Kenya, education graduates took up to five years to get jobs because of a government freeze on teacher employment. Equally, the agriculture sector has a low absorption capacity even though it is the country’s economic mainstay.

Kenya’s most marketable courses are medicine, computer science, statistics, communication and social media, electrical and electronic engineering, law, nursing, architecture, aviation, real estate, finance, actuarial science, oil and gas engineering.

The soul of university education

The study also indicates that universities were venturing into new areas and introducing new courses such as megatronic engineering, which is a blend of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, and intended to produce graduates with superior knowledge and skills in the field of engineering. Courses such as finance have also introduced units such as Islamic banking in line with the changes in the financial services sector.

For policy makers, the challenge is striking a balance between market-driven and non-market driven courses. There is danger that preoccupation with market-driven courses, which attracts large number of students, may annihilate the liberal arts and natural sciences, which in themselves may not be commercially oriented but are the soul of university education.

Some of the outstanding developments in higher education in the region are innovation and entrepreneurship. Also governments were trying different models of managing university. On this score, Rwanda’s one-public-university model is cited as a unique experiment.

Instead of having several public universities, the Rwandese government decided to collapse and merge all of them into one – University of Rwanda – with the former stand-alone institutions becoming constituent colleges. At the same time, the country has aggressively attracted foreign investors to set up universities in the country, making it one of the countries with a higher number of transnational higher learning institutions in the region.

Graduate unemployment was cited as a major challenge that has arisen due to the rapid growth of universities. However, the study also documented the variations on country basis, with Rwanda recording the lowest rates of graduate unemployment at 8 per cent compared to double digit figures in the other countries. Even more significantly, the country has purposed to reduce that to 4 per cent by 2018.

Parallel degree programmes

The study acknowledged the impact of module two or parallel degree programmes in opening up opportunities for more deserving people to access higher education. But it also established that distinction was beginning to emerge between module one and module two students.

Employers seemed to prefer module one to module two students, with the argument being that the latter did not take much time in class or were not involved in practical sessions or projects compared to the former. It was noted that module two students only came to the school in the evening or the weekend and the lecturers were mainly concerned to teach them and complete the syllabus and never bothered about other elements like project work or class discussions that enriched learning.

In assessing their views about accommodation, it emerged that except in Rwanda, public university students did not like stay campus because they were expensive and were perceived to be insecure. The students also faulted the mode of allocation of hostels, which they described as non-transparent. At any rate, some universities like Maseno had a policy of allocating the hostels to first years and only considering the rest if there were extra vacancies. The students also reported that the universities did not have alternative accommodation, thus students were left to their own devices to seek shelter.

In Uganda, old universities like Makerere and Kyambogo offer accommodation to most students. But private universities hardly offer accommodation. Concern about university accommodation is that the hostels are run down and unkempt, hence less attractive to many students.

Campus survival

Likewise, in Tanzania, the public universities offered accommodation to relatively large number of students. However, a number of students preferred to stay on their own to avoid the stringent rules in the hostels and also minimise their costs.

The study also examined the life on campus and the overwhelming response among students in public universities was that they were having a lot of hardships due to insufficient funding. Many respondents indicated that had adopted austerity measures to survive on campus, including skipping means.

It was noted that State funding through institutions such as Kenya’s Higher Education Loans Board (Helb), Tanzania’s Higher Education Students Loans Board (HESLB) or Rwanda’s Bank of Rwanda were not adequate and always delayed.

“When asked how they survive, some respondents reported that they skip meals, engage in side hassles such as online essay writing, sell second-hand clothes or engage in betting, particularly, SportPesa,” they said.

Of particular interest was Rwanda, where students received loans through the Bank of Rwanda, which has taken over the function of the erstwhile Rwanda Education Board. The students expressed apprehension over the arrangement arguing that the bank’s interest rates were likely to rise and make it diffcult for them to repay the loans and throw them into unexpected debts later in life.

Indeed, this is the problem that has hit universities in America, where debate is raging over ways and means of making university loans manageable and sheltering graduates from life-long loans.

The study also looked at the co-curricular activities and established that they were on offer in many universities. However, it was noted that the new universities as well as the satellite campuses of existing old universities did not have co-curricular activities as they did not have facilities. Private universities run by faith-based groups have strong choirs and faith-based religious activities.

“The town campuses are only centres for teaching and nothing else … no room or facilities for games and other co-curricular activities,” said one of the respondents.

Curriculum harmonisation

A critical finding from the study was that although the East African Community member states have been pushing for harmonisation of university curriculum and qualification frameworks, little was known about that at the grassroots.

Largely driven the Inter-University Council for East Africa and the national regulators of universities, the process was not known outside the confines of the boardrooms. In principle, harmonisation of curriculum and establishing common framework for quality and standards was a transformative initiative as it will allow student mobility and free movement of labour. But few know about it, not even employers, according to the survey.

In sum, the study observed that whereas the expansion of universities had created opportunities for more students to access higher education, it noted that many challenges had emerged that require immediate intervention.

Respondents concurred that the ideal university should have the following: Qualified lecturers, adequate learning and teaching resources, provide a wide range of social amenities for co-curricular activities, embrace cultural diversity, guarantee security of students on campus, offer decent accommodation and create a robust environment for academic and intellectual pursuits.