|Written by:||Meshack Masibo|
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx
On Tuesday 26th March 2019, Prof George Magoha and Mr Wycliffe Ogalo were concomitantly sworn in as Education Cabinet Secretary (CS) and Commissioner-General of Kenya Prisons respectively. But this wasn’t the highlight of the Professor’s rise to the helm of one of the most pivotal ministries in the country.Soon after Prof George Magoha was nominated as Cabinet Secretary for Education; his 91-page CV started doing rounds on social media. However, the experience Kenyans have had with Prof Magoha clears any doubt that the cv is just a beautiful array of paper and ink.
Anyone who knew the filth at the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC) before Prof Magoha marched there and scrubbed it will consider him the best for the job. Magoha’s research and leadership record as a former University of Nairobi VC is also an impressive bonga point. Shortly after the announcement of his nomination, Chief Justice David Maraga suggested that Magoha did not need parliamentary vetting since he is suited for the job.
There was a clear buzz and frenzy in the education sector after President Uhuru Kenyatta nominated Prof George Magoha, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, to replace Amina Mohamed as Education Cabinet Secretary. This ministry is among the most complex, covering as it does the entire educational journey of young Kenyans from nursery school to university and everything in between. The challenges at the different levels of education are so diverse it will take lots of innovation for him to succeed.
The new cabinet secretary has his tray full with a number of issues presently ailing the Kenyan education sector. First is the funding crisis. Nearly all universities – public and private – are dreadfully broke. The financial mess in universities is complex. But no one doubts that it is also a result of poor leadership, unplanned embrace of liberalism, poor internal financial structures and years of state underfunding of higher education.
Today, narratives of delayed salaries, lack of remittance of statutory deductions, unpaid bills, and cash flow problems no longer make the news. Universities no longer fund research, a core function of universities. This state of affairs cannot be sustained for long. Proposals to adjust students’ fees will not bridge the funding gap and more is needed. Asking universities to generate finances on their own is losing sight of the essence of higher learning. Most universities need a bailout to survive the near future or risk collapse.
On their part, years of unplanned expansion and conversion of universities to employment agencies have resulted in unsustainable wages in campuses, with most universities yoked with a bloated administrative staff, while woefully understaffed in their faculty staff. The new CS must urgently seek funds to organise and facilitate a labour rationalisation in public universities whilst giving considerations to prosecuting previous financial fraud in universities as deterrence against future malfeasance.
Secondly, the issue of quality and balancing regulation requires attention in our local universities. While it is possible the new CS will hear more of ‘missing marks’ and ‘unapproved university programmes’, these are only symptoms of deeper issues of quality. While too much horizontal expansion denied universities the option to consolidate, over-regulation is also making it difficult for universities to thrive. The new CS needs to use the office to restore much needed dignity to the academic profession
Thirdly, another challenge that will face the minister is the implementation of a new curriculum for basic education, the so-called Competence-Based Education. Many education experts have opined that the roll-out was rushed and adequate preparations were not made before the pilot phase that was implemented last year and its continuation this year. Indeed, at the end of last year, many thought the then minister agreed with this point of view when she publicly declared that the system was not ready for the full implementation of the new curriculum. It is suspected that her statement may have so annoyed powerful business interests in the sector that it might have led to her transfer to the less prestigious ministry of sports.
Prof Magoha will have to dispassionately review all the available evidence and if he determines that the system is not ready for the new curriculum, he will have to make the bold decision to suspend its continued implementation despite pressure from the publishers and others with business interests, in order to fix whatever needs to be fixed first. In doing this, the good professor must be guided by the fact that every action he takes in this regard will have far-reaching effects on the future of this country through the impact on very young and impressionable minds.
Fourthly, being a recent victim of the state’s interference with council decisions, the new CS needs to address governance and university autonomy. Indeed, Prof Magoha was the first, and probably the last, competitively hired Vice Chancellor in Kenya. It is timely at this juncture to reflect on the disturbingly poor quality and credibility of higher education leadership, and how this has additionally contributed to the demise of the Kenyan university. Councils are poorly constituted, and heavily politicised.
Another key challenge for the minister is the chaos in the higher education sector. Perhaps due to the difficulty in controlling professors and lecturers at our universities, government policy seems to have shifted to empowering middle-level colleges and destroying our universities. Many programmes at our universities have been dismissed by government agencies and spokespersons as ‘useless’, and funding for these citadels of learning has continued to dwindle.
It is not hyperbolic to state that all public universities are broke, and many would be declared insolvent and ordered closed if they were running as private business entities. Labour disputes have resulted in multiple strikes, affecting the progress of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and no concrete action has been taken to address these. Research is practically non-existent in our universities, and most of them have traditionally survived on tuition fees from the students they admit every year.
This crisis in university education is also linked to pedestrian decision-making and leadership not only in the universities themselves, but also in the sector regulator, the Commission for University Education. This commission has, as is the custom with incompetent commissions in this country, evaded its original mandate and instead mutated into some kind of ‘super senate’, attempting to micro-manage Kenyan universities and stifle their creativity and competitiveness in the global marketplace of ideas.
Prof Magoha must live up to his reputation and allow universities the space to nurture innovation, critical thought, and a national consciousness.