Friday, January 2, 2015

Hacking Higher Education

By Esther Nakkazi

After two decades of teaching at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosafety, at Makerere University, Professor John David Kabasa, had heard enough of the same request from his students.

Upon completion of studies, after graduation, most of his students would beg him to tip them on any employment opportunities and not only in their field of study, but they could do ‘anything’.

This was perplexing for him and a time for inner reflexion and questioning. Was the education the students obtained from Universities a lie? Was University education just enslaving students in Africa? Why could they not find employment after attaining high education?

He observed that students with veterinary medicine and agriculture degrees or food science could not do the basics like making yoghurt, those who eventually got employed as Agricultural officers were only playing a supervisory role to farmers. And the farmers were looking down upon them because they were not practical.

Yet most parents had sacrificed a lot to get students through higher education, some selling land, properties. But at the end there was no employment and no skills acquired.

“We need a major overhaul on the ideology to higher education in Africa. We are disoriented. We are still using the colonial model, which is not ideal for Africa and the products are on the streets crying,”  Kabasa says.

“We auctioned research and realised that University graduates only use less than 50 percent of knowledge acquired. We then tried to find out what else could they do with their time,” says Kabasa.

Kabasa then came up with an original innovation to higher education, an alternative model, that is transformative, affordable and uses a competence based approach but also enrols everybody, irrespective of their education level. It is a modularised degree.

“This University model welcomes all. Its focus is to transform communities. It fast tracks education. It is anchored onto production. Whoever is recruited is against poverty. It graduates enterprises not people. It also engages the University with the community,” says Kabasa.

It is the first of a kind around Africa, everything is different.

At one graduation ceremony, students served guests with yoghurt, instead of the usual soft drinks. They were showing off acquired skills, at least they had something to show. The guest of honour was elated.

In this model students are skilled. Skills are imparted to groups of about 300 people in for instance hay making, making soap from pig fat, making honey etc. And the model, so far, is popular so much so that it has government funding as well as cultural and religious leaders support.

The model, referred to as Afrisa-Africa, is also envied by students enrolled in the mainstream University system, because typically, students make money immediately. Entrepreneurship is emphasised, it is engaging, practical and community based.

University Education in Africa and Community Engagement;

“Higher education in the East African region is modelled to the European system, to solve society issues in Europe not Africa,” says Professor Mayunga Nkuya, the executive secretary Inter-University Council for East Africa.

Professor Nkuya says the only way Universities can be relevant to is to be attached to communities, 'it is the only way they will remain relevant.'

However, although participants attending the first East African Networking Meeting in the field of Community University Engagement, held in Kampala, Uganda, 27th-28th October marvelled at its way of how through this a University can engage the community, some scholars still feel it is not the right way for a University to engage the community.

But the inventor, Kabasa, disagrees. To him this is the best model for Universities. He says Universities are resisting it, and they have a right to, it has many implications especially on the types of professors that will be deployed.

“Will they measure their professorship from the number of articles produced in peer-reviewed journals as has been the practice or by the number of households transformed?”

“It is a good innovation. Everyone is now realising that there is a mismatch between University graduates and what the industry needs,” says Dr. Lucy Kithome the Activity Manager from Education and Youth at USAID-Kenya.

“We need a paradigm shift in higher education. Our graduates are roasting maize in Kenya. We graduate engineers but Chinese are building our roads,” said Kithome in Kampala.

Dr. Paul Nampala, the program Manager for Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), which promotes community Action research by Universities says that ‘Universities ought to realise that they do research with communities.

“Universities should know that communities have a lot of knowledge and coping mechanisms that have made them resilient,” he says.

Nampala observes that although most Universities had taken off in different directions in terms of University Community Engagement, the new Universities have a chance to get it right.

Dr. Okot Alex, from the School of Distance and Lifelong learning at Makerere University does not differ much. He says this approach is an innovation in the way Universities teach and will improve the employability of students who can then participate in national development. 

But insists the University should engage the community at the same level, without the ‘I know it all’ attitude prevailing now, since knowledge is not the prerogative of any community.

Kabasa says the current system of higher education in Africa is promoting unemployment and supervisors of peasants. His model will produce a new generation of Africans who are skilled, productive, entrepreneurial, developmental and can transform nations.

But should this new generation be produced by Universities? 

Universities for Research not Skilling;

George L Openjuru, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Gulu University, says although the Afrisa model is a good innovation, it still uses a top-bottom approach while the new higher education network for East Africa formed wants the community and the University to be engaging at the same level.

Dr. Vincent Ssembatya, the director Quality Assurance at Makerere University says its is true that the country needs skilling at that level, but the University is not the best place to do it. It can be done by tertiary institutions or you will transform the University into a community college.

Dr. Nampala says the model leans more on skilling communities yet that is not a job for a University. "A University should get a ready made product- a school leaver, not a school drop out."

Nampala says quality has to be paramount for Universities to thrive, but with the Afrisa model, experience is considered key yet it is not a qualification.

“Universities are tasked with generating knowledge. If they start skilling communities they will fail at their task,” he says. If the Universities engage with communities by skilling them, it will waste researchers’ time, whose job is to solve community problems by finding solutions and giving innovations to non-governmental organisations to implement.

RUFORM funds the Afrisa model, and has given them funds to study the rural financing model. Once they get the knowledge they will hand it over to implementers.

So for Dr. Nampala, the Afrisa model, is filling a gap where non-governmental organisations and line ministries have failed to do their work- that of skilling communities.

“We need to give a thought to the world that we really want and how we get there. We need a new form of education,” says Professor Budd Hall of the University of Victoria in Canada, co-holder with Rajesh Tandon of the UNESCO chair. “Community University Education can inform the curriculum.”

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