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Professor Olive Mugenda: Quality Education Will Transform Africa

Professor Olive Mugenda, the Vice Chancellor of Kenyatta University, spoke to The Global Herald about transforming higher education systems in Africa to support knowledge driven societies. The interview took place during an international conference on education – a collaboration between Kenyatta University and Syracuse University in the USA.

Kenyatta University has set the pace by becoming the first in the region to set up a foundation and recently launched a business incubation centre to increase entrepreneurship and innovation in the region. Professor Mugenda is the first Kenyan lady to become Vice Chancellor of a public university in Kenya.

Professor Olive Mugenda

Q. What is the role of higher education in Africa?

A. Tertiary education is a principal driver of growth in the construction of knowledge economies.

It is central to the creation of the intellectual capacity on which knowledge production and utilization depend.

Knowledge contributes to economic competitiveness and social well-being.

Universities’ contributions to development go further than generating knowledge and training, to performing a third stream of activities in a proactive manner, for economic development.

Economic development is increasingly linked to a nation’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge.

Q. To be particular what is the role of higher education in the current information society?

A. It aims to inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest levels as they increasing knowledge and understanding while serving the needs of economy and shaping a democratic and civilized society.

Q. What factors are critical to universities’ roles in social economic development?

A. They are knowledge creation (research), knowledge transmission (developing human capital) and knowledge application (outreach).

Q. How do you evaluate higher education in Africa?

A. Higher education in Africa has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

Today’s dynamic university system is the fruit of three major developments that span the twentieth century: the diversification of knowledge, the diversification of the student population, and the diversification of delivery systems.

Higher education systems in most countries including those in Africa are speedily evolving especially under the influence of the technology, globalization and competition.

Q. What are some challenges facing higher education in Africa?

A. To begin with, the exponential growth in enrolment against institutional capacity is a major concern.

The last decades have seen an accelerated widening of access to higher education all over the world, notwithstanding that access policies have changed drastically in the last thirty years, there is still much to be done. However, the above situation has seen many higher education systems moving to a mass-oriented and universal access policy.

Q. What about funding?

A. We are experiencing inadequate funding. There has been a reduction in the proportion of government funding to public universities.

Whatever is allocated is insufficient to meet the cost of running the university programs and activities.

For example, in 2007, Ethiopia’s spending for education was 17.5 percent of GDP of which 17 percent is allocated to higher education (HE). In Kenya it is 17.9 percent of GDP – 16 percent to higher eduction; Uganda 18.3 percent of GDP, 12 percent to higher education and Tanzania 11.4 percent of GDP, 10.7 to higher education.

Q. What about the quality and relevance of education?
A. The principal contribution of a university to a society is based on: the quality of  knowledge it generates and imparts, the habits of critical thought and problem solving it institutionalizes and inculcates in its graduates, and the values of openness and democratic governance it promotes.

There is concern about the quality of higher education in Africa. Education quality is said to be compromised in an effort to expand enrolment. There are growing complaints by employers that graduates are poorly prepared for the workplace. There is also increasing competition in the higher education market place because of numerous private and transnational providers.

Q. There have been a lot of complaints that research output from African universities is limited. What is your position?

A.  In Africa research is hampered by: inadequate funding, insufficient knowledge and expertise, limited research infrastructure and scarce training opportunities.

Q. What is your position about ranking?

A. The greatest challenge with ranking is that it is leading many universities to redesign their strategy to improve in the ranking rather than do what is right for the local setting.

Some universities invest heavily on the improvement of their ranking with no visible improvement in their impact on the society.

Ranking universities with different backgrounds in terms of history, areas of focus, missions and vision is faulty. Each of the universities possess unique attributes and niches that need to be strengthened for quality higher education.

It is wrong to compare universities that differ in terms of: size, type, mandate and age.

Q. So what strategies should be put in place for institutional transformation?

A. There is a rising awareness of the need for effective quality assurance and quality improvement.

However, the universities are identifying and prioritizing capacity enhancement needs for quality improvement.

Quality assurance units are being established in the institutions as well as adopting tools that have an impact on quality such as accreditation, ranking and benchmarking.

Q. What can be done to enhancing the relevance of education offered from institutions of higher learning?

A. Relevance is assessed in terms of what the society expects of the institutions and what they do.

Provision is made for access to both broad education and career specific education: interdisciplinary, focusing on knowledge, skills and aptitudes, equipping individuals to live in a variety of settings and inculcating a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Higher education is focusing on its role of service to society – aiming at stimulating development and impacting on important life values especially moral ethics.

To enhance its contribution to the development of the whole education system, higher education should continuously focus on improving teacher education, curriculum development as well as revision and enhancement of educational research.

Q. What about the promotion of equality?

A. Universities are developing higher education to be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. They are providing more opportunities for lifelong education; mainstreaming gender related policies; affirmative action to females and disadvantaged groups; and mainstreaming gender into core functions of teaching, learning, research and administration systems.

Q. What has necessitated the universities’ embrace of entrepreneurial initiatives?

A. We are confronted with declining revenue support by governments and increasing expenditure – thus universities are embracing entrepreneurial initiatives.

Entrepreneurship support in universities is closely integrated into external business support partnerships and networks and maintaining close relationship with firms and alumni.

Over the centuries, the mission of the universities has been undergoing expansion in line with changing socioeconomic environments, the need to generate funding to supplement state subventions and the need for universities to be in the forefront of driving economic growth.

Q. What steps should universities take to strengthen research, science, technology and innovation?

A. One, capacity building for research: they need to identify funders and encourage the mobilization of resources for research; enhance public-private partnerships; and encourage inter-disciplinary research.

Yes, they have to develop appropriate dissemination activities; investing in infrastructure as well as developing policies, strategies and mechanisms aimed at producing, transforming and retaining a new generation of academics.

Creating policies and an environment that encourages innovation though innovation funds and business incubation is very important.

Two, forging partnerships for development: linkages, collaborations and partnerships are critical for university development in Africa.

These partnerships can take the following forms: university – industry which can give birth to industrial parks and research contracts; university-university and university-research institutes.

Other partnerships that must be explored are: university – private sector, for example turnkeys and BOT (build-operate-transfer); university – international organizations; university – community; and university – relevant professional regulatory bodies.

Q. What outcomes do you expect from these partnerships?

A. Enhanced funding, development of infrastructure and start-up support.

Business incubation like the Chandaria – Business Incubation and Innovation Centre at our university will be scaled.

We also expect that they will foster an entrepreneurship-friendly administration and comprehensive support infrastructure.

The partnerships will lead to an improvement in the curriculum, knowledge and skill transfer as well as sharing best practices.

Q. How are institutions embracing ICT in key operations?

A. Integration of ICT at universities is critical to their establishment as centers of excellence.

ICTs impact on every aspect of the university life including teaching, learning, research, student services and administration.

Universities are investing considerably in ICT hardware, software and capacity development.

Today’s virtual classrooms use a diverse array of instructional methods and media to facilitate learning, including videoconferencing, satellite broadcasts, interactive multimedia presentations, chat room discussions and computer exercise tutorials.

ICTs enable students to have wide range of visual and auditory learning materials at their disposal.

Q. What can you say about fundraising –best practices?

A. Universities need to establish foundations to solicit for funds, donations and materials.

They need to engaging alumni in development of their alma mater.

They need to solicit support from the private sector and well-endowed individuals, for example the Chandaria Foundation.

They need to establish an investment arm of the university to generate extra funding in order to implement strategic activities, for example the KU Uni-City, North Coast Beach Hotel.

Q. Tell us about policy development at universities.

A. Universities should develop policies that touch on key university operations processes.

Policies should be the natural outgrowths of the organization’s management philosophy and overall objectives.

Policies are very important as they help management to direct the organization according to established goals and mission.

Q. What is your vision of successful universities in the continent?

A. They will be determined by the following: the rigor of the preparation of upcoming academics, the quality of educational experience gained and the effectiveness of the partnerships with global institutions.

Their commitment to internationalization and attaining international stands will play a vital role.

Their effectiveness in partnerships that link the university with the community as well as the impact of the university on the quality of life of citizens will demarcate their excellence.

About Robert Okemwa Onsare

Robert Okemwa Onsare
Robert Onsare is pursuing Electronics Technology at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. He is a Cluster Strategy trained facilitator by Kenya's National Economic and Social Council (NESC). Mr Onsare has been an incubation student at the University of Nairobi, School of Engineering, FabLab, a venture project of the university and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is a member of the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) and a published poet. Mr Onsare is based in Kenya.

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