Academic freedom key to quality

graduation ceremony
A happy lady at a university graduation ceremony. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Academic freedom serves as the lubricant that enable the gears of higher education to work. But a delicate subtle force persists against the academy’s psyche. Across media, forums, social media posts, dinner conversations, and boardrooms in Kenya, we often lambast the quality of our tertiary education institutions.

The term “half-baked graduates” often trends on Twitter. Heaps of blame gets put on universities yet ignores the anemic support and integration by industry, over-regulation by government, and low demand-induced expectations on the sector.

In response, since the days of Jacob Kaimenyi in the education docket, commentators proclaim standardisation as a way to enhance quality. Requiring all courses to use the same textbooks, syllabi, methods, among others. Yet more over-regulation will not solve the sector’s ills. The corruption, bureaucracy, and crowding out of top academic talent under standardisation would spell disaster for our Kenyan higher learning environment by teaching to the lowest common denominator and reduce learning outcomes for students and obliterate academic freedom. We need less convergent thinking and more and more divergent thinking.

Universities set programme learning outcomes for each academic programme or degree such as a bachelor’s of commerce, MBA, among others. Then schools within the university are responsible for ensuring they empower their learners to meet and exceed those programme learning outcomes. Learning outcomes typically get approved by ministries of education in each respective country around the world and external accreditation bodies. Then, each specific class within a programme retains course learning outcomes unique to that specific class. Once setting the course learning outcomes, schools within universities must choose competent lecturers for those subjects who can deliver the learning outcomes for the students. The school should not dictate how a lecturer must deliver the learning outcomes through standardisation.

Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, pens that academic freedom provides faculty members with substantial latitude in deciding how to teach their courses. The Association of American Colleges and Universities declares that teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.


Over in France, the Constitutional Council statute law declares that university professors, assistant professors, and researchers are fully independent and enjoy full freedom of speech in carrying out their respective research and teaching activities.

The Freedom Forum Institute classifies academic freedom into two categories: institutional and individual. Institutional academic freedom entails universities should be able to determine their educational mission free from any governmental intervention. Individual academic freedom involves the right of an individual professor to teach their curriculum without undue interference from university administrators or other third parties.

What is the purpose of academic freedom?

Ann Franke argues that academic freedom advances the two core values of higher education most effectively: advancing knowledge through research and creativity and educating students to develop their own independence of mind.

Nora Loreto expounds that a lecturer must have the academic freedom to design a course how they want. They should be able to choose to use slides, use a blackboard, alter their slides, change their case studies, or decide to change their teaching strategies mid-semester to meet the needs of students. They can also build on lectures that they have thoroughly practiced and can integrate their own research into their classroom. In short, lecturers must be in control of what they teach without standardisation.

Why require PhD holders with experience in Kenyan universities if they will only teach in a prescriptive environment like mere trainers? Instead, we need punishments and retributions for poor quality, outdated, or inaccurate lecturing. We need rewards for phenomenal teaching that infuses applied practical experiential learning with cutting-edge theory.

The significant bulk of university lecturer performance appraisals and promotion criteria come from research publications but not how effectively they share and impart knowledge to learners. Imagine a lorry driver who was not evaluated based on the safety of their driving. What about a lawyer who loses every court case? Or a doctor who misdiagnoses patients? Likewise, we must demand more from our lecturing fraternity and avoid standardisation. We must not be overly impressed just because a lecturer shows up for each class and succeeds in not losing grades. We must demand more as students, parents, regulators, institutions, and fellow lecturers themselves. By demanding better and allowing divergent methods, we ensure continuity of academic freedom. The insinuation that an NGO, foreign or domestic, or some other entity must become the forced arbiter of Kenyan university curriculum is insulting to the sector and to the Kenyan academy as a whole.

As we clamour for quality and results, let us not let the pendulum swing too far to one side and give up our autonomous aptitude in Kenyan lecture halls.