History of University of Nairobi traced in a book
In her book A History of Higher Education in Kenya, Dr Jennifer V. N. Riria explains how education in Kenya has evolved from the pre-colonial era to the present day.
Riria starts by giving a brief review of how universities in Africa started as constituent colleges of the University of London and later became independent.
In the book, Riria compares the University of Nairobi, of which she is an alumni to other international universities in Britain and United States.
“Education was hard for Kenyans to access during the colonial period and job opportunities were limited,” she notes.
Riria narrates a story of how higher education in Kenya begun, why and for what purposes; how it affected the country and the population in general. Factors such as poverty, need of manpower, need of a literate population and politics influenced the development higher education in Kenya.
Among the most controversial public statements quoted in the book is one by former President Daniel arap, Moi, who had doubled as the Chancellor of University of Nairobi saying: “From now on, University of Nairobi will be answerable to the Government and to the ruling party, Kanu. I do not want to hear anymore demands for things such as academic freedom, who will give you academic freedom? Because the Government pays (funds) it, they will do what the Government wants.”
Riria classifies universities in Kenya into two: public universities such as University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenyatta University and private universities such as the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Strathmore University, United States International University among others.
In the 83-page book, Riria who also studies at the Kenyatta University goes deeper in explaining the relevance of universities to the country, population, economy and development process.
University of Nairobi was the first to be given a charter, its history as an educational institution goes back to the colonial period, but it did not become independent until 1970. So much was expected from the University of Nairobi because it was the only higher educational institution in Kenya mandated to provide students with special skills.
Foreign companies relied on University of Nairobi to provide them with people able to work and produce. The functions of the university were stated in the University of Nairobi Act, 1970, section 5 which states thus: “The University of Nairobi is to provide facilities of university education; assist in the preservation, transmission and increase of knowledge; conduct examinations and grant degrees and diplomas and to co-operate with the Government in the planned development.”
During the colonial period, Africans had limited opportunities to access higher education. The University of Nairobi was expected by the Government to Kenyanize top jobs positions by training students. In 1977, the job situation in Kenya had changed: Kenyans started to be embedded into the labour market.
Although the University of Nairobi seemed to be meeting its requirements by the Government, it had various challenges that prevented it to completely fulfil them. The Government could not make predictions about the number of people coming out of the university, when students would graduate without finding a job immediately that resulted into their frustration and that of the people who invested in them.
Students from poor backgrounds could not attend higher education due to the burden of school fees and the university did not have much space to admit new students. According to public, the University of Nairobi failed to fulfill its duty.
To implement the stated functions, the university required an effective mechanism of administration and control.
Riria, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Women Holding, gives an overview of the administration of British universities which was like this: the Chancellor at the top, followed by the council, Vice-Chancellor and Senate, Registrar, faculties, departments and students.
The style of university government in Kenya borrowed heavily from Britain, although the idea of making the President of the country Chancellor was not convenient. In the University of Nairobi, the Chancellor (the President of the country) was at the top, which meant he had roles to play.
A ministry was established: The Ministry of Education was set up to promote education of the people of Kenya and the progressive development of institutions of learning devoted to the promotion of education and co-operation with public bodies. The education system in Kenya was done in such a way that people coming fresh from high school would be qualified enough to get into the university.
The University of Nairobi, however, did not have its full autonomy. The Kenyan education system was considerably financed by the Government which had the power to compel the universities to do what it wanted with the funds it gave.
International bodies also had an impact on the education institutions in Kenya. Whenever aid was given, it was to finance all the Government projects including universities. That type of aid had various controls on the universities at national and international levels.
It worked hard towards promoting equal access to power and education although the power today in Kenya rests in the hands of a few and relatively rich people. The University of Nairobi is the mother of all the public and private universities in Kenya.
In the book’s forward, written by Sheilla Parvyn Wamahiu (PHD), of Kenyatta University, she concludes: “This book by taking us back several decades to the challenges faced by a fledgling university, helps us to break the romanticism of the past, and by doing so, offers hope that maybe not all is lost if only we could learn from our successes as much as our mistakes.”.