From my experience as a lecturer, that promise, which has been pushed in Kenya for last eight or so years, has never materialized. Instead, regional integration of higher education has overburdened lecturers with more management processes and paperwork, leaving them little time to have better impact in the classrooms and research centers, where education and knowledge production actually take place.
The project sounds harmless and reasonable, but the devil is in the details.
Because standardizing education was mainly for the employers, critics said that the process reduced education to a sterile set of skills for the employers but did not prepare graduates to deal with the contextual challenges of individual countries. Also, the attempts to standardize the length of time degrees would take – for example, setting a Bachelors’ degree to take three years – meant that some countries were forced to cram content studied over four years into three years, thereby burdening students with extra work and leaving no time for students to create or think.
And even in Europe, the Bologna declaration was met with resistance. Integration was criticized for being the agenda of university managers and including no meaningful contribution from students and faculty. In Germany and Austria, students and faculty protested against the idea under the banner “Bologna burns,” criticizing integration as rooted in the neo-liberal and capitalist desire to reduce the democratic ideal and the public funding of higher education. Integration was also seen as a push to reduce education to the needs of companies, thus training students to become workers, but not necessarily educating them to become useful citizens of society.
These criticisms of the Bologna process are tied to the core idea of a university. As the root word “universitas” implies, a university is supposed to be a community of scholars and students. The idea is that different issues and phenomena would be discussed and researched within the university walls by scholars, who would in turn discuss those ideas with students and disseminate the solutions to the larger society.
Of course, in this capitalist world, taxpayers and parents feel uneasy about allowing universities to determine the research agenda and curriculum. They want an immediate return on their buck, and often see universities as wasting resources on training that does not matter in the work place or that does not get their children employed after graduation. However, the problem of graduates who cannot get jobs or who are impotent in the work place cannot be addressed by increased managerialism that comes with integration. Rather, it has to come from universities encouraging innovation, and that innovation can only thrive in an atmosphere of academic freedom. Also, pegging education only to the job market is pure short-sightedness, because while employers may not necessarily want to invest in the social sciences and humanities, those are the subjects which address social problems like tribalism and corruption that ultimately affect the business environment in which the very employers operate.
In other words, there are issues besides employment that a society needs to address through its education systems, and universities cannot contribute if there is no academic freedom, because they would not be free to study and innovate. And from my experience, the push to integrate actually curtails academic freedom.
For example, if anyone should be promoting the East African community consciousness that Dr. Gicharu talks about, it should have been me. My studies in French and on recent Rwandan history should have made me the ideal person to research and teach courses on history and culture of Rwanda and Burundi. However, in the eight years I have been teaching since completing my doctorate, such opportunities have been hard to come by, because the standardization has introduced a mountain of paperwork and hefty fees to be paid to the Commission of University Education. The process of innovation in curriculum is so time consuming, that by the time a new curriculum is approved, it is already outdated. Moreover, despite the talk of making graduates citizens of the East African community, the university administrators will probably make decisions that the content is irrelevant to the same East African market in whose name the administrators speak.
Indeed, just like in Europe, integration has been promoted in East African universities with a top-down, rather than bottom up, approach, except with an added foreign player. Middle-level university administrators were trained in workshops that were largely funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). At those trainings, our questions about how the decision that Africa needed to replicate the Bologna experience were politely ignored. We would leave those workshops burdened with needs for more documentation, and our concerns about how that would affect actual education were met with vague promises that standardization would improve the quality of education.
But standardization just meant more paperwork, and more time spent in administration meetings, rather than on actual service to the people who are teaching or being taught. Department meetings barely discuss research ideas and curriculum anymore; instead, they focus on telling faculty about yet another document they had to fill for forwarding to the next level in the administrative process.
With integration being a burden, more than a benefit for the lecturer and the students, one reaches the conclusion that integration is attractive to top Kenyan university administrators more because of interest in the market, rather than in the quality of education. With universities being big businesses, standardized education would mean that Kenyan universities would expand their reach to markets beyond our borders.
Is there need for integration in East Africa? Yes. Is there need for curriculum that matches the needs and aspirations of the member nations? Definitely. But it will not come from top administrators pushing for institutional integration. It can only emerge democratically from innovation in the classrooms and research centers among the teachers and students. The best way university administrators can contribute to regional integration is by increasing their support for innovation, research and quality teaching; not by increasing managerialism of higher education.