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Interview with Olive Mugenda
"African governments have realised the benefits of research for the economic development of their countries"
December 2013 / By Germn Sierra
On 31 October, Olive Mugenda, president of Kenyatta University in Nairobi (Kenya), took part in the Doctoral Education and E-Supervision workshop which looked at the challenges and academic opportunities presented by online supervision of doctoral students. The workshop, which was held at the UOC's IN3, is part of the PLE-PHD project promoted by the Catalan Public Universities Association (ACUP) and the International Association of Universities (IAU) within the framework of the LEADHER programme. The aim of the project is to analyse the use of digital technologies, specifically 2.0 tools to meet the two primary needs of doctoral courses in Sub-Saharan Africa: supervision of doctoral students and visibility of research. Since 2006, Mugenda has been at the helm of one of Kenya's leading universities at a time of extensive expansion and growth. She is the first woman president of a state university in East Africa and a member of The Talloires Network, an international network of universities working for social commitment.

What is the current position of African universities?

The word that best defines the moment is growth. Many centres have been created in Africa and the existing ones have grown. The number of students has increased tremendously. Never before had there been such demand for higher education. In Kenya alone, since 2007, a number of new centres have been created. There's a lot of demand and the government is responding by increasing the number of universities.

In the university that you head up, you don't only concern yourself with the day-to-day academic and administrative management, but you've worked a lot to help the community that lives around the campus. How do your social programmes work?

We're a big university, with 70,000 students, and a very clear philosophy: social responsibility and help for the community around us. We've set up a division with this aim. And we help in very diverse ways. Whenever we construct buildings, we hire workers from nearby and that has an impact. People from the community have told us that thanks to these policies, crime has fallen in the area. Another programme that we run consists of selecting very poor children and young people from that community to train them for free in a range of trades. When they finish their training, they receive a state diploma thanks to an agreement that we've signed with the ministry and some of them go back to their community and can set up small businesses. Thanks to these programmes, people see university as something that belongs to them, as an institution that helps them.

You've also put healthcare programmes in place.

Yes, we have a medical school and there we help members of the community, we advise them on basic health issues, we treat minor ailments and if there are major illnesses we refer them to the city hospital.

What percentage of young people of university age can afford to study? Is African university a place for the elite?

I'll speak of Kenya, which is the case I know best. In the past, only young people who met the requirements set by the government, and who were therefore grant-holders, could gain admission to university. But that system left out a lot of people even though they could afford to go to university. Five years ago, we managed to get universities also to be allowed to accept students if they met the criteria specified by each centre. This new rule has served to double the number of students. I think that it's been positive and that people are happy with the change. Also, university isn't too expensive thanks to the government grants or the aid programmes of the centres themselves. At Kenyatta we have grants for the most needy and we also help students who come from rural areas.

Is there a change of mentality among African governments? Are they starting to believe in research?

Absolutely. African governments are changing their mentality, they've realised the benefits of research for the economic development of their countries. There are progressive rises in budgets devoted to research, both in universities and in other institutions. Next year, Kenya is devoting 3% of its gross domestic product to research. That had never happened before.

But surely you must live with the brain drain, which is a very worrying phenomenon, even here in Catalonia.

We do. We don't have competitive salaries. They're good salaries in our countries but they can't compare with what you can earn in the United States or South Africa. That's why we're constantly losing people, we simply can't keep them here. To prevent this drain at our university, we've decided to put a rule in place. Every student with a grant who's studied for a doctorate at Kenyatta is obliged to teach there for three years before they can move elsewhere.

Earlier you mentioned the mass enrolment of students at African universities. According to a report published in 2010 by the International Association of Universities (IAU), which compiled information from a series of sub-Saharan universities, there's also been a spectacular rise in enrolments of doctoral students...

Yes, a rise that has a lot to do with the growth in number of students. There's a lot of interest in doctorates and luckily, unlike what happened before, that interest is then translated into employment due to the growth in the number of universities. Doctorates in educational fields attract a lot, followed by doctorates in the sciences, economics and business.

During your presentation at the workshop, you said that one of the main problems that doctoral students have to face in your country is the lack of supervisors in the various engineering fields and medicine.

Yes, that happens because traditionally an engineer in any discipline or a doctor had enough with their degree to be able to work, they didn't go any further because they didn't need a doctorate. Hence these profiles of doctors in these disciplines who can supervise are scarce.

They're professional profiles but without the academic and research discipline...

Yes, although they're excellent professionals in their fields, many have specialized in specific subjects and have master's degrees. They're good teachers and are above the rank of doctor because they've specialized, but we still need doctors who are able to supervise doctoral candidates appropriately.

Hence your visit to a number of Catalan universities.

Yes, because if we can manage to reach an agreement on the form of that relationship between universities, aspects such as payments, the role of the supervisor, the time they would spend, the minimum number of on-site meetings, their obligations and those sorts of bureaucratic aspects, online supervision could be one of the solutions to this lack of supervisors. We're used to in-person relationships, but technology has revealed to us that we can do most things without an on-site meeting. This same principle can be applied to supervising doctoral students. We have to break with that traditional way of thinking that says that the supervisor has to be from the same university, even from the same department. I don't think it's necessary. What's important is that the supervision should be quality, not the format in which it's done. I believe that 80% of supervision today could be virtual.

You also find yourselves in a paradoxical situation. Your government is asking you for more doctors but you don't have sufficient trainers to supervise these doctoral students...

Yes, the government finds it needs to have more doctors throughout the country, among other things to fulfil the Kenya Vision 2030 development programme. They're asking us for more doctorates but we reply that we need more resources to train doctors. It's probable that they will choose three Kenyan universities, the ones with most capacity, and they sit down and discuss how many resources are needed to train more doctors. We'll analyse how we can invest these resources because one of the main problems is this lack of supervisors.

Is online education gaining ground on the continent?

Yes, it's also growing and there are examples of very strong institutions such as the University of South Africa (UNISA) and the Open University of Tanzania. But I think that most prefer a blended on-site and online system. Most students at Kenyatta are on-site, but we have around 5,000 distance students. Right now, there's no entirely online university in Kenya, but there is a government proposal on the table to open the Open University of Kenya, and it looks like it will be soon.

Is the use of Information and Communication Technologies as widespread as you'd like it to be?

There's no problem in the cities, there's extensive and massive use. Also, agencies have been created to ensure the use of ICT, such as the Kenya Education Network (Kenet), which coordinates the use of ICT in universities. In the cities, the students have easy access to computers and good broadband connections. At Kenyatta, we have 3,000 computers available for the students to use. Having said that, the great problem is for the universities in rural areas, where internet access is very shaky. In those areas, Kenet is also working to improve the situation. At Kenyan universities, we have broadband that works excellently but we pay a lot of money for it if we compare it with the price you pay in other countries.

 

Profile

  • She graduated with honours in education from the University of Nairobi in 1979 and received her doctorate at the University of Iowa.
  • She is one of the most respected figures in her country in educational matters and the first woman president of a state university in East Africa.
  • Her research Improving the Performance of Girls in Science and Mathematics in Secondary Schools has been nominated for the Commonwealth Education awards.
  • She is a member of the governing body of the Association of African Universities, the governing body of the International Association of Universities and of The Talloires Network.
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