Higher education reforms are a common concept across the world. But it means different things to different people.
While some refer to it as changing the public education system in higher learning institutions, others define it as lessons from lecturers, research and policy working together for student success.
The common denominator in all definitions is student outcomes.
The reforms, however, often take different forms depending on the motivations of reformers. In Kenya, this is evident from the views of four different Cabinet Secretaries (CS) who have occupied the Ministry of Education Science and Technology in the past six years.
What may be considered ideal student outcome is as varied as the motivations of reformers. There isn’t any convergency on what system works best.
For example, if our collective motivation (not that of the reformer) is to produce employable graduates, the German or South Korean higher education system may be ideal since they focus more on applied learning.
On the other hand, if we agree to have a democratised system where the institutions decide to develop their own programmes based on their value proposition, then we need the American system that has multiple emphases from academic to applied sciences.
At policy level in the US, the community colleges and some technical universities teach both academic and applied learning (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) type programmes.
When Education Secretary George Magoha announced the merger of universities as part of the reform initiative, his remarks were met with immediate resistance. Since then, much has been said in the media that the problem with universities is not just budget.
The big problem has been articulated by industry. This is the fact that many of the graduates from our universities are not employable. In most cases they require additional training in order to be useful in the industry.
In systems theory, such feedback will require investigation into the inputs (preparation of students from high school), processing (curriculum and pedagogical methods at university) outputs (industry expectation).
The problem with the inputs started in 2003 when President Kibaki announced free education in Kenya. Although the policy was great, it stretched resources and pushed enrolment across the system including the universities. University education expanded to accommodate massive enrolment in basic education.
Massification of higher education in Kenya was sudden and unplanned as enrollment started to increase at rates of over 30 percent per annum, which overwhelmed physical resources and seriously undermined lecturer student ratio.
The global average ratio of student to faculty is 16 compared to the average ratio in Kenyan universities of 70 per faculty well above the Commission of Higher Education requirement of 1:50 for theoretical-based courses and 1:20 for practical-based courses.
Top ranked university average 5 students per faculty. Any reform will have to address these numbers, pedagogical methods and curriculum in order to improve quality.
Other reforms that are necessary include a requirement for faculty members to have industry experience at least one year for every four years of teaching, reduction of the bloated support staff to global standards, encourage public private partnerships in venture creation and commercialisation of research by relaxing stringent regulatory regime and making heavy investments in the information and communication technology for greater efficiency.
To cut costs, we could borrow a leaf from the organisation of state universities in the United States. We could for example create one giant State University of Kenya with colleges in every county, similar to State University of New York with 64 colleges spread throughout the State and perhaps three land grant universities.
This will immediately begin to optimise resources within one employer eliminating such wasteful investments as satellite campuses. These colleges could also offer applied science courses.