Kenya pushing R&D in higher education

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A sharper focus on science and mathematics in universities – including research and development activities – is necessary if Kenya is to improve rates of graduate employment.

Expanding sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives and promoting research and development (R&D) collaboration between the academic and business communities, in particular, could narrow the skills gap and improve student outcomes.

Agreement at the national level

In order to better equip students for the labour market, tertiary curricula should be more inclusive of STEM courses, Fred Matiang’i, secretary of the Education Cabinet, told a gathering of public and private stakeholders in March.

Since 2000 Kenya’s higher education system has undergone a massive expansion, with the number of public and private institutions rising from 19 to 70, and total enrolment climbing from 49,000 to 480,000.

However, participation in STEM-related programmes of study remains low, at just 22% of the total students, compared to an average of more than 70% in South-east Asia.

Following on earlier initiatives to improve STEM performance in secondary schools, Matiang’i said a similar shift in focus was needed at the tertiary level.

“It is important for us to start re-orientation of our universities’ programmes and have a deliberate bent to STEM courses,” he said, underscoring the importance of STEM education as a driver of employment and economic development in emerging markets.

Building bridges with business

One of the key benefits of expanding STEM training would be higher rates of employment for university graduates, given the demand for technical skills in the job market. As with many emerging markets, university graduates in Kenya often face difficulties in securing employment – in part a result of a mismatch between academic curriculum and the needs of private sector employers.

Closer engagement on curriculum development between the academic and business communities could help end the disparity between the skills needed for employment and those currently being taught, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, vice-chancellor of the US International University, told OBG.

“To do this, we should make sure the university’s advisory board includes industry representatives,” he said. “They can offer information on industry trends and skill deficits, which we can incorporate into our curriculum.”

In addition to adding relevant coursework, increasing R&D cooperation between universities and the private sector – whereby companies invest in research relevant to their business and universities conduct the research ­– is expected to further narrow the skills gap.

“Very little of science, technology and innovation research is being conducted in collaboration with the private sector, and this is one area where there is opportunity for mutual gain,” Zeleza added.

Research spending by Kenyan firms remains low, according to a World Bank economic report on Kenya released in March, with the share of Kenyan firms investing in internal R&D 40% lower than in Ghana or Egypt and 50% less than in South Africa. Total R&D spending was equivalent to just 0.5% of company revenues, with the vast majority spent on internal research.

The role of government

To encourage increased R&D, the government could foster further collaboration by providing incentives to the private sector, according to Noah O Midamba, vice-chancellor and CEO of KCA University. However, universities must also meet the standards companies require to work with them.

“The research has to be relevant, and universities need to be able to protect the private sector investments,” he told OBG.

The government’s commitment to double R&D spending to 2% of GDP, as part of Vision 2030 – Kenya’s national economic development strategy – could help bring the private sector on board.

“Hopefully, this R&D push exposes the benefits of research and encourages the private sector to follow. If there is consistent political will, Kenya is well poised to become a regional research centre,” Zeleza told OBG.

Replicating local content policies, which have gained some traction in the entertainment and energy sectors, in the education sphere could also provide a boost to R&D.  

“The Local Content Bill will give universities the first opportunity to work with the government. This way we will use our resources to develop our institutions,” Matiang’i said.

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