The mission of university and a reconceptualization of my scholarship

This will be the last summary of the reflections of Dr. Bethwell A. Ogot. It is my hope that you did find the first installments here, here, here, and  here and that they were worth your time.

The origin of and idea of the modern university is, Ogot, informs us a product of the European Middle ages. He notes, however, that these universities could have borrowed from schools of antiquity such as Plato’s Academy or the mosque at al-Azhar where Islamic and Arabic studies were taught.

The universities that began in Europe were established as theology and philosophy schools. Oxford was established to train for church and state, Harvard’s oldest chair was that of Divinity.

The key feature of the idea of the university was a scientific interest, that is, a thirst for knowledge. It was conceived as a creative intellectual community of scholars and students, whose main task was seeking the truth. A definite line of study was marked out by authority and a definite period of years assigned to a student’s course , examinations administered at the end and a title of honour awarded at the end. Our universities, therefore, Ogot notes, are a direct inheritance from the Middle Ages.

The universities were mainly autonomous, elected its chief representative, deans, had the right of examination and graduation. Free movement of scholars from one university to another allowed knowledge to expand. This autonomy was undermined, from the 14th Century by the establishment of State or Church universities. From this moment on, the university was subjected to political and ideological aims. This can be seen, for example, in the words of Francis 1 of Austria to the professors of Ljubljana

we do not need scholars, but good citizens. Educate the youth accordingly. Who takes his pay from me, must teach what I order him to do. Who cannot do so, or will come up with new ideas can go, or I will have him removed.

Several minds were influential in the transformation of the medieval university into the modern university. Among them we have Wilhelm von Humbdolt in Germany, J, Henry Newman in Britain and the French model conceived by Napoleon. The British model had the most influence.

In Africa, the universities started as importations of our colonizers.

On his reflections on the socio-economic environments that universities operate in, he argues, they must appear to have a sure and well defined contribution to return to the societies which support them. This contribution will be determined by a combination of factors; who they educate, and at what cost, the structures of the institutions themselves and their relationship with the government, ease of access for potential students, level of fees charged, nature of research undertaken among others.

It is in this context that we must consider the neo-liberal proposal that the university should become market driven. The question to ask is

what would a market-driven university be like?

To the neo-liberal, the students should be the primary funders of university teaching. The role of the government should be as a lender to the students and a supporter of ‘useful’ research. Ogot fears that were this to be the case, the freedom of the professors to determine the content of their teaching and direction of research, the expansion of knowledge, provision of disinterested analysis of phenomena and evens will be some of the unhappy implications.

In reconceptualization of scholarship, he says we must expand the usage of the word from the narrow daily usage of research and publication to four independent components; the scholarship of discovery, of application, teaching and integration.

On university reforms, his focus is directed mainly to the state of university education in Kenya. He mentions the several reports, beginning with the Ominde Report coming after independence and focusing on education for manpower needs, the second report, the Gacathi Report concentrated on equity and relevance, the Makay Report focused on the need for a second university, with the 8-4-4 system of education as its by-product and the Kamunge Report whose basic thrust was the provision of quality education and training in a context of tight fiscal constraints.

From 1991, Ogot writes, the government resolved that undergraduate admission to public universities shouldn’t exceed 10,000 and a subsequent annual increase of 3%. It was also agreed that there should be a gradual move towards a 50:50 Arts: Science enrollment. Commission for Higher Education, established in 1985, though envisaged in paper to be a powerful body, was indeed useless, that is, staffing inadequacies, parallel functions with those in the legal instruments that established universities among others.

On staff management, he writes our universities employed unnecessarily large numbers of non-teaching staff. He says in some cases, they even out numbered the students. In an environment of rapid pauperization of the academic staff, working conditions have deteriorated, real salaries have declined in value, dignity and influence has also been conceded by the academics.

On quality assessment of higher education, he says we are ill prepared for this function. CHE cannot do this for public universities. He says Vice chancellors, who only have power to appoint visitation panels, only do this when there is a crisis and at the time of publication, he says this had only happened once in the University of Nairobi following a closure of about 14 months. He concludes that it is essential to develop a higher education monitoring and evaluation system.

On his reflections on the enterprise university, he says there has been a departure from university as a public good to a commercial enterprise. He says there is need to redefine the idea of the university. We have education companies, some calling themselves universities, sells skills and training awarding degrees or certificates to customers students. One of this companies is the Apollo Group (University of Phoenix) out of the US and is listed on the NYSE whose features include reduction in lecture and contact time, small classes, group work and target state of the art business practices. To be a teacher, you have to be willing to accept the new model and receive two weeks of training in content and methods.

Over reliance on part-time faculty, having self sponsored students, as happens in our universities, is part of the commercialization of education necessitated by failure of government to adequately fund higher education. To meet financing challenges, universities instituted commercial enterprises like bakeries, printing press, and for my alma mater, UNES.

I have omitted in my summaries, reflections on the internationalization of universities where he looks at the case of Australia and Britain with both their international students and branches/ franchise of their universities around the world.