Several weeks ago, this column wrote about the need for universities to focus much more on research. This past week a colleague at the university did just that by inviting a public audience to share his research agenda as the director of one of the institutes at the university.
He wrote about a theoretical framework he called the Usable Past. By this he meant learning from the experience to develop the future priorities. It also discussed the contribution that history and experience could be brought to bear in charting a path for the institution.
As the presentations went on Kenyans engaged on twitter, applauding the initiative while at the same time raising critical questions.
One such question was why the academy had abandoned its place in influencing the national agenda through its research outputs. While those of us in the academy can argue about whether we have abandoned this role, the uncontested fact is that the university of today is not as respected and influential as it was in the past.
Going back to the time when universities set agenda for the country requires several changes. First, just like my colleague did last week, academics and academic departments must deliberately set out their research agenda and share it with the public. It is only by doing so that they can be held accountable to knowledge generation.
Secondly, while academic papers and journal article are the hallmark of scholarship, time has come for the academy to realize that such papers on their own do not influence policy.
Policy makers require to be engaged in a manner that catches their attention and communicates effectively. Journal articles will not do so. Learning about policy briefs, penning opinion pieces and engaging on social media become important avenues for policy influence.
Thirdly, research is undertaken for society. Context therefore matters. Researchers in Kenyan Universities must focus on studying the Kenyan society and using the information that they gain from such studies to develop new analytical frames.
This way the basis for analysis will increasingly be more Kenyan and Afrocentric and base on lived realities of the Kenyan society. Information from such research are more likely to help transform the society as opposed to an approach and worldview that is largely Eurocentric.
In pursuing its research agenda, universities must create linkages with industry and with society. This may be in the form of collaborations in identifying, funding and pursuing a research agenda and by having public discourses on research outputs.
The youth are the future of any society. Universities offer a fertile ground for inculcating in young people values and ideas that can shape their worldview for years to come.
The way universities carry out their business has great potential for shaping the future of Kenya. Beyond instructions in lecture halls, it is necessary that higher learning institutions develop programmes for engaging young people in research. With their vigour and inquisitive mind, young people are capable of leading innovations in the country and thus spurring Kenya to faster rate of development and to be a leader in technological innovations.
To succeed in this path, it is time to relook at the model of University education and redesign it to be fit for purpose. There must be more focus on innovation. This requires that academics be freed to focus on research. The research also requires to be funded.
By doing so they will be greater appreciation of their role in society and reduction of the temptation of many to abandon the academy and pursue other seemingly more glorified careers, including politics. The end loser is the society, which is denied the opportunity of thought leadership.
Any researcher will tell you that there are numerous areas of our society where there lacks credible and contemporary data that can help influence policy. As a result, decisions are made without the benefits of any analysis and reflection of the options.