KENYA's five public universities have embarked on a major degree restructuring programme to tailor courses closer to the economy following a rise in graduate unemployment and underemployment.
The University of Nairobi is spearheading the drive following concern over the high failure rate in science and technical subjects.
Its engineering department reports that, on average, half the students who register in departments of mechanical, electrical, civil and agricultural engineering fail in their first or second year of study. A similar trend exists in departments of surveying and photogrammetry.
University authorities blame such failures on poor technical and scientific facilities. Most laboratory equipment in engineering departments is old. Much of it was bought before 1975 and is either obsolete or out of order. The rest is in need of constant repair.
Lecturers, however, cite the inadequate preparation of students in mathematics and other numerical sciences at secondary school level.
Department spokesman A. Okello said: "Poor performance in basic courses leaves the students with a weak foundation and many end up with pass degrees."
Textbooks and journals are also inadequate. In most cases the recommended books are not available in the libraries or are too expensive in the bookshops for students to buy with their limited income.
A University of Nairobi survey said that social problems have affected quality and standards. "It is a case of hungry and angry students. They forego meals because of lack of money and they appear underfed. Most free time is spent on discussing political issues in the country and less effort on studying."
Rapid expansion of tertiary education at the expense of other post-secondary institutions is also blamed for a decline in quality. There are 40,000 students in the five public universities and 3,000 more in three private universities.
The quality of university education has also fallen considerably because of low morale among lecturers as a result of poor pay.
"Absence of a conducive intellectual and academic environment has created a major brain drain from public universities in Kenya," says Joseph Kimura, an education management consultant with Deloitte and Touche in Nairobi.
Other criticisms are that most technical programmes are more theoretical than practical. Many companies seek graduates with practical skills instead of those in need of training. Employers are willing to give jobs to bright students with leadership qualities, an ability to work in teams and evidence of work experience.
Nairobi University plans a two-tier degree programmes: one scientifically-oriented and the other industry-based. According to vice chancellor Francis Gichaga, "a minimum period of 12-week industrial attachment will be mandatory".
With limited job opportunities in the public sector, the universities expect to produce engineers with specialist skills who can become consultants within a short time. Specialists can earn more as independent consultants than as government or company employees.
Public universities are to offer specific degrees in economics, mathematics, physics and chemistry without demanding that students study minor courses for the award of the degrees.
The move will allow students to study more courses in certain subjects and enhance competence and skills in fields that are more competitive in the labour market.
The universities will also remove inflexible admission criteria. Ninety-nine per cent of undergraduates are at present selected on the basis of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, equivalent to O levels.
In future, holders of A levels and baccalaureate diplomas will be admitted on the strength of their grades.
Universities are also proposing to develop a performance appraisal system that will evaluate the performance of staff. Those who fail to perform according to the set standards will be retired.