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Rethinking Africa’s Higher Education

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Prof. Noah O. Midamba, the Vice Chancellor and CEO of KCA University, demystifies the decay of quality education in local universities and how they can reclaim relevance

By Jacob Otieno

Every year, an estimated 50,000 graduates are released into the job market from public and private universities in Kenya. Surprisingly, only half of them are fit for employment according to the Commission for University Education (CUE), Kenya’s higher education sector watchdog. This means some 25,000 unemployable graduates are produced annually; leading to a pile-up of thousands of jobless graduates most of who lack practical and relevant skills.

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Employers commonly refer to them as half-baked graduates, a disparaging tag for the local degree holders who have supposedly spent four academic years being trained and tested in readiness for the labour market. But it is not their fault that they can’t get employed. The local universities, both public and private, are largely to blame.

“What most African universities seem to be doing is ‘copy-paste’ academic programmes from each other with little emphasis on innovation, quality and relevance,” says Prof. Noah O. Midamba, the Vice Chancellor of KCA University, a hard-nosed and outspoken African scholar with radical reform agenda for Africa’ s higher education system.

When Prof. Midamba was appointed the CEO of KCA University in May 2010, the institution, which historically specialised in Accounting programmes, was preparing to start a law school. The new boss was not amused.

 

“I said, wait a minute! Why must we have a law school? Is it because everybody else has it? Or is there a particular reason why we must have law school?” he posed, curiously. Then, as the institution’s newly appointed manager, he shared his thoughts and vision for KCA University. From the onset, it was clear that it was not going to be business as usual.

In Prof. Midamba’s view, the fact that most local universities today aspire to offer everything that they can lay hands on is one of the biggest enemies of quality education in the region, and that is what he is trying to move KCA University away from.

“What is happening in Africa is that we are missing the goal by all trying to be the same. In the beginning of the East African community, for example, there were those universities designated to offer engineering programmes, those that were supposed to offer medicine and law. That is how the system was set up. But 50 years later, we have no specific university that can claim to offer world standard signature programmes. Instead, universities want to offer everything,” argues Prof. Midamba.

KCA University, he says, is specialising in business and technology because that is where its core strength is, insisting that quality education in Africa will only be arrived at once the universities start specialising, and the governments backing them up with the necessary resources that they need to grow.

Disconnect between academia and industry

Glaring lack of specialisation aside, Prof. Midamba asserts that there is also still a disconnect between the academia, the government and the industry that is hurting the quality of learning in the local universities, which consequently translate to the quantities of graduates that are being released into the labour market.

“We appear to be moving in parallel lines. The universities are not talking to each other. And the industry is on its own,” he says, adding that the governments are also yet to come up with clearly defined policies that can foster collaboration between and amongst the academia, the public, and the private sector.

In an effort to bolster the much needed Academia-Private-Public partnerships, KCA University has partnered with several private and public institutions including various business entities, locally and abroad, that share in their ideals.

“For instance we are partnering with Tohoku University of Japan, one of the best management universities in the world with over 75,000 students.  KCA University is the first African university they are collaborating with,” says Prof. Midamba.

Their other strategic partners include Maarifa Education, Galilee International Management Institute – Israel, Kent State University  – USA, Babson College (one of the most prestigious entrepreneurship institution in the United States), ZIBAT Institute in Denmark, Stockholm Business School – Sweden, University of Trinidad and Tobago, Dublin Institute of Technology – Ireland and University of Cape town – African Growth Institute, Kenya Accountants and Secretaries National Examinations Board (Kasneb), Co-operative Bank of Kenya, ICEA Lion Group, Telkom Kenya, Corporative Insurance,

The VC says they are currently in talks with a number of local commercial banks with the intension of producing for them the quality human capital that they need to grow their businesses and contribute significantly to the growth of the region’s economy.

 

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He urges African universities to embrace the Academia-Private-Public partnerships as it will not only give the students an important exposure to the industry, where they can acquire the practical skills needed, but will also play a huge role in the development of quality workforce for the African economy.

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Prof Noah Midamba, Vice Chancellor KCA University

“Right now we are flying our patients for treatment in India and other countries because we don’t have enough world class doctors.  We have Chinese constructing our roads because clearly most of the engineers that we produce are not good enough,” says Prof. Midamba. “There is dire need for change of mind-sets in the academy, the private and the public sectors.”

What about research?

A university that does not thrive through research and produce solutions to the many problems that are facing the human race is, seriously speaking, not worth being referred to as one, and even Prof. Midamba agrees.

“The world’s greatest universities, like Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard, have earned their prestige because of their breakthroughs in research,” he says.

The problem we have in Africa, Prof. Midamba argues, is that we don’t have clearly defined policies that can encourage investment in research. We are also yet to formulate strong policies that will address issues of intellectual property and protect the interests of local and foreign researchers alike.

Also, he adds, the universities are not working with government in a collaborative way. For instance, we have been dealing with a lot of insecurity issues in Kenya, but the academy is completely silent. They are not doing any research on security at all.

“These research efforts requires funding, which is not a problem if we put our priorities right in my opinion, but we also need to change this mind-set of ‘money first, action later,” says Prof. Midamba.

Disrupting the norm for a progressive course

Prof. Midamba has worked and taught in various universities in the United States, among them University of Denver, Kent State University where he served as Associate Vice President, Youngstown State University — where he also served as Chief International Officer for the Center for International Studies and Programmes, University of Colorado at Denver, and Pacific Lutheran University. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience on matters of education, foreign and public policy, diversity, among other things.

His unwavering quest for quality education in Africa could be just what is needed to bring progressive change in the region’s higher education sector.

Thanks to Prof. Midamba, Kenya now has an all-inclusive, more effective and efficient system of admitting students (who have finished secondary school) into universities and colleges. He mooted the idea that led to the establishment of the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), which replaced the now infamous Joint Admission Board (JAB).  Kenyan students can now use State Funded Schemes to enroll in any Chartered private universities of their choice.

The vastly respected Professor is one of the big critics of JAB, which they have accused of massive shortcomings, among them marginalisation of students with disabilities and killing the dreams of thousand others through discriminatory selection and admission criteria.

KUCCPS board, a corporate body that was established under Section 55 of the Kenyan Universities Act No. 42 of 2012, seeks to promote equity and access to university and college education by, among other things, developing criteria for affirmative action for the marginalised, the minorities and persons with disabilities.

The placement Board — its members include Prof. Midamba, also seeks to establish a criterion  that will enable students  to access the courses they applied for, taking into account the students’ qualifications and listed priorities. But this is just one step towards reforming Kenya’s higher education sector.

Most importantly, Prof. Midamba is calling on African scholars and all stakeholders in the higher education sector to change their mind-sets. In KCA University, students and staff now go through mind-set training.

 

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