I have recently returned from a regional universities’ conference at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
Besides noticing the superb multiple-lane, Chinese-built Thika highway in Nairobi that would find a home in any western capital and which Jennifer Musisi should interest her self in, I observed an untold story.
Kenya is undergoing a quiet revolution in its university education which has far reaching consequences extending to Uganda.
Until recently, Kenya had seven public universities that included; Nairobi, Moi, Egerton, Kenyatta, Maseno and Masinde Muliro Universities. Many Kenyans unable to afford Kenyan private student tuition fees flocked to Uganda.
Since 2007 (election year, you recall?), Kenya has through legal notices, embarked on an ambitious drive of establishing a university college in each county with 25 new university colleges already established across the country, a move partly driven by electoral politics.
With new public universities expected in Uganda in West Nile and Teso regions and Kabale University set to benefit from public funding, Uganda is backing the trend.
The principle difference is that the newly established universities in Kenya are constituent colleges of the already existing public universities whereas in Uganda we are setting up entirely new public universities.
The dangers of hastily set up public universities are obvious.
African governments have scarcely been able to support the existing public universities characterized by persistent declines in funding and chronic strikes.
We have a small pool of qualified university lecturers that we are spreading too thin with declining research output owing to punishing teaching loads and overflowing classes. What quality of graduates are we producing? And aren't we churning out more business and computing degrees than we need?
Many lecturers at Kenya’s public universities have found themselves Vice Chancellors and Principals at the newly established university colleges in their home districts- a further example of the unfortunate ‘ethnicisation’ of public universities.
In Uganda’s case, setting up completely new public universities without established infrastructure (the proposed West Nile university initially didn’t even have electricity supply), human resources, university administrative structures, curriculum development resources etc make the Kenyan model seem even preferable.
The major Kenyan public universities have been mandated to nurture the constituent university colleges in Kenya whereas in Uganda, the new public universities are on their own except for two or four administrators seconded from the existing public universities.
Undeniably, there is an unquenched demand for university education in both countries if you imagine the number of Ugandans who earn two principles pass and actually qualify for university education but never make it to university.
But are thousands of more university degrees what poor African countries actually need? Why can't I get a qualified plumber to fix my pipes or a qualified electrician to fix my power or a qualified builder to put up a perimeter wall?
The multiplication of public universities in Kenya should be of interest to Ugandan universities especially private ones which have depended on the Kenyan market for many years now. From where I sit, I already see a decline in the number of enrolling Kenyan students.
In our national development plans and East African community strategy, it is assumed rather than known that Uganda has a comparative advantage over other East African countries with regard to the education sector. My visit to Kenyatta University has left me unsure.
To be fair, mushrooming public universities are not exceptional to Kenya and Uganda and a common to most of Sub Saharan Africa.
From the sole University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has set up an astonishing new 30 universities in less than five years for its 80 million-strong population -part of the Meles Zenawi legacy. Malawi is setting up three more public universities in addition to its two existing universities of Malawi and Bunda.
Clearly, Sub Saharan African countries face a common challenge of rising young populations with no viable economies to engage them but setting up multiple public universities is the wrong answer to the right question.