Africa’s ivory tower universities are alienating the people and students they are meant to serve when they should be leading development efforts, creating relevant knowledge and addressing local employment needs, says Ndungu Kahihu , responsible for a Kenyan training program that aims to empower young people and link them to jobs.
In Kenya, popular dissatisfaction with the apparent inability of universities to provide proper training has led thousands of students, despite the wishes of their parents, to opt instead for a place in one of the colleges of education and technical and vocational training (TVET) in the country. in college, according to Kahihu.
“It indicates that universities are not meeting society’s expectations of them,” he says.
Indeed, Kahihu sees the very existence of the CAP – Youth Empowerment Institute, which he directs, as a testament to the failure of African universities to address what he describes as “the existential problem of youth unemployment”.
He is also deeply critical of what he sees as the isolation of universities from the development needs of surrounding societies and from national development needs.
“If I had my way, I would force all universities in Africa to devote 50% of their time to research and implementation of research involving community members and helping them solve their problems or helping them harness their own knowledge to solve these problems,” says Kahihu.
“In this regard, universities should not function as ivory towers isolated from society, but should act as leaders in their local communities.”
Commitment as a public obligation
Indeed, Kahihu considers this commitment as a public obligation: “It is time for people to demand a return on the value and esteem attributed to universities, which enjoy a privileged position in their societies.
He argues that universities should reform themselves by collaborating with “those they are meant to work for, which should include employers; development planners; communities and young people, themselves, through society”.
In this regard, he proposes that a first step is to break down the walls, both physical and imaginary, that separate these institutions from local communities – for example, the idea that ordinary villagers should not dare approach people who are highly educated at university. By taking an engaged approach, universities must also be less monolithic, Kahihu says.
“There are universities in Kenya that boast of enrolling 75,000 students on one campus, as if that’s a source of pride,” he says. “They better be proud of, for example, creating institutionally linked colleges or schools that have been able to enroll 75,000 nationwide.”
Why don’t universities do mentoring?
However, in their quest for relevance, a key priority for universities should be trying to produce employable graduates – which Kahihu says involves engaging employers directly, focusing on industry needs and of the labor market.
To this end, Kahihu notes that there are only a few universities in Africa that are doing this with good results, and most of these universities are in Europe or North America.
“For example, the needs of industry are a priority in Germany, where many universities offer work-study programs that combine practical internships and academic training. This is an approach that could easily be adopted in Africa,” he notes.
Kahihu’s own organization has sought to involve employers in the training environment itself, including involving them in determining learning needs and outcomes; design and deliver the curriculum; and in the evaluation of the proposed learning.
The dual training methodology used by the institute “has enabled the institute to achieve a high transition rate from learning to earning of almost 80% among its students,” says Kahihu.
It is a recipe for employability that the institute seeks to disseminate more widely, including to TVETs in Kenya, with whom it has now established a collaboration programme.
Also, some aspects of the program, such as the emphasis on mentoring, whereby each intern is assigned someone to hold their hand until they can work on their own, can be easily adopted into the academic environment.
Indeed, Kahihu says he is perplexed by the current inability of universities to provide such support: “Why don’t the universities, which produced the theory on which this model of mentoring is based, offer such support?
He further notes how producing employable graduates could provide an important funding stream for higher education institutions, referring to the institute’s own experience.
“Over the past 10 years, employers have expressed their appreciation of the value of these services saying, ‘We hire people from universities and colleges who are half-baked and we have to train them, which is very expensive. If the university assured us that its students would be trained according to our requirements, we would pay”.
By promoting the importance of more open and democratic access to higher education, Kahihu also emphasizes the crucial role that digital technology can play in this regard.
In this regard, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic should be used to innovate in the higher education system, he argues.
“The shift to online learning, accelerated by the pandemic, offers a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to improve access to education,” he says.
“I want Africa to be at the forefront of the changes that will take place, as the continent needs this disruption more than anywhere else, given its relative lack of resources to train and teach everyone.
“In this respect, satellite connectivity offers the opportunity to skip the infrastructure-building phase of Internet development (and thus to provide universal education), just as cellular technology enabled Africa to skip the construction of telephone lines and communication cables. ”
However, Kahihu notes that the widespread establishment of an online open university concept can be hampered by a combination of political inertia and resistance from vested interests.
“A radical change in the system would be met with resistance from educators who see higher education institutions as places removed from society where students come to sit quietly in front of a teacher or lecturer and passively acquire knowledge; and also, by unions representing education professionals who have been well served by the current structure,” he says.
Overcome fear of risk
Furthermore, timid policymakers should overcome their fear of the risks of drastic action “which could result in the loss of all the money and effort invested in the current system”.
In response, Kahihu argues, the pressure and process for change “must be driven from within society,” with universities carrying the norm, despite resistance from some within those institutions.
“I think universities should lead the way, given the longer-term benefits that can accrue, both to themselves and to national populations, from the rise of digital education,” he said. declared.
“There must be an imagination of how society could be transformed if there was widespread connectivity and if speakers and trainers had been trained to digitize and deliver the content they currently only offer face-to-face .
“One has to imagine how the level playing field could be leveled, if access to the best possible education was offered to everyone via the internet – without the need, for example, to leave the village and travel to a town or city. distant. ”
Once this view has been promoted and embraced, and given the current infrastructural barriers to providing universal higher education on a face-to-face basis, the political will to equip higher education institutions with the technology Appropriate electronics, media and resources in support of the open university concept can be mustered, says Kahihu.
This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Dr. Alude Mahali for “The Imprint of Education” project, which is implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, explores current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and the innovations. Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher edited the transcript for focus and length. Features already released in the series can be downloaded from the website.