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Are parallel degree students favored?

For some it’s a lifeline, it literally saved them lots of money they would have used for studying abroad. For others, they have been able to get promotions thanks to the parallel degree program they were able to enroll in either as undergraduate or mature students. Yet for others, the parallel degree program is responsible for the declining standards of university education in the country. The parallel degree, or the self sponsored programs, draws mixed reactions depending on whom you talk to.

Before the programs were introduced, the rules were clear
and simple. Do your KCSE, get the best grades, and if you are lucky, get admitted to the regular program in public universities. Otherwise, for those with money, they could have opted to study in private universities or chose to go abroad fro studies altogether. So, it was a great relief to many when the University of Nairobi admitted the first set of Bachelor of Commerce Parallel degree students in 1998. At the time, the tensions were high between the regular students and the parallel students. Truth be told, the tensions haven’t completely died down, as there is some kind of buffer zone between the regular and the parallel students.
After the University of Nairobi, many other public universities moved in to introduce the programs, and today, all the public universities have instituted the programs. Initially, the programs were offered only for a few courses, but today, all programs have a module II section. The most popular programs remain Bachelor of Commerce and Information Technology (IT) and Computer Science.

The universities are laughing all the way to the banks. Since the structural adjustments programs instituted by the World Bank and IMF in the 1990s, many third world governments were forced to slash their budgets for crucial sectors such as health and education. Kenya was no exception. Previously, the government was meting the full cost of education for the university students. But faced with such measures, this meant that universities would now be cash strapped. During the time, the universities experienced many strikes, as students couldn’t cope with the lack of funds. Such students had been used to being given pocket money, or, ‘boom’ and the pain was too much. The students had to chip in to finance their own education. At the time, as opposed to today, many of the students were drawn from poor families, and in fact, some students used the boom to support their families, so, it would be foolhardy to ask such students to chip in and pay tuition fees. Equally, the universities experienced many student riots. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the strikes were mostly based on ideologies, on issues that plagued the nation. The era of James Orengo, PLO Lumumba, Kabando wa Kabando as university student leaders was plagued by ideology, on issues such as the clamor for multiparty democracy, and the university student occupied such a high place in Kenya’s national psyche.
However, the strikes soon shifted to issues of bread and butter. Soon, the strikes were based on increase in chapatti prices, power blackouts, fee increases and other mundane issues. So, when the parallel degree programs were introduced, it was a great relief to the cash strapped universities. The universities are able to charge the market rate for the courses, as opposed to the regular program where all courses are charged at almost the same rates. For instance, even if it costs much more to train a medical student than an arts student, in the regular program, they pay almost the same tuition fees.

For some universities, the revenues from the program run into billions of shillings per year. They have been able to buy new buses, construct new laboratories, hostels and generally upgrade the level of infrastructure to some meaningful standards.

But it is such revenues that has many critics lashing at the programs. If the universities are able to earn such a high income from the parallel programs, would it really be in their best interests to limit the number of students that join a program, even if some might not have met the requisite requirements? Some regular students have in fact accused the self sponsored students of being favored in exams. They don’t understand how a student that was admitted with a low grade can certainly emerge with brilliant grades, sometimes even graduate with a First Class Honors. In fact, some of the students admitted with as low as a C have worked hard and emerged with a First Class, beating students that attained As and Bs in high school.

While some admit that there are students who would have been motivated and worked hard for the entire duration, they also point out that lecturers could be favoring the parallel students. In many cases, critics point out that the exams the regular students sit for are harder when compared with the exams that parallel students sit for. To such critics, it would not be in the best interest of the lecturer and the university in general to set harder exams for the parallel students, knowing too well that if such students failed and were discontinued, the university would lose the revenue it needs to sustain itself. However, whereas this might be true in cases where the regular students sit in separate classes from the parallel ones, it doesn’t hold water when students sit in the same class. In classes such as law, medicine and engineering, both sets of students attend the same classes and sit for the same exams. In this, the regular students have been accused as having an entitlement attitude, feeling that they are the only ones who deserve to be in the university, and no one else matters.
In another respect, the time spent doing the program is yet another area that regular students consider as being unfair to them. The waiting period for joining university for Freshers has been unusually long, sometimes up to two years. The double intake program has definitely served to lessen the time spent at home. For some universities, this waiting period has been reduced to just ten months. However, not all universities have implemented it, citing lack of facilities and the watering down of the academic standards. The long periods of waiting to join university was occasioned in the 1990/1991 academic year, as the system was being changed from the previous 7-4-2-3 to the current 8-4-4. This meant that double sets of students could be admitted, as universities moved to admit both the Form six and the Form Four graduates. In this regard, some students had to wait for long periods, sometimes up to two years. Although many education stakeholders routinely tried to address the issue, it was never really sorted out until late last year when some visible signs of the program implementation began to bear fruit.

Even then, the regular students have to contend with staying at home for four or five months per year, something which the parallel students can opt out of. In fact, if one does have the money to go full cycle, they can just close for a week between the semesters, and be through the program in just two and a half years. So, by the time they would be graduating, their classmate who joined the regular program would still b in First year.

Of course, some critics do claim that such fastened academic study period does not foster a holistic learning, and is geared more towards the completion of the curriculum than wholesome learning. For universities however, such an arrangement ensures that many students are able to pass through the system and hopefully increase the intake of the universities.

Still, some universities have duplicated some courses in a bid to attract more students. In engineering for example, one university has established telecommunication and information engineering, electronics and computer engineering, and electrical and electronics engineering. For all intents and purposes, such programs would still be under the electrical and electronics engineering program, but by dividing it into three programs, this attracts far more students and ore revenue for the university. Another university has established energy engineering and mechanical engineering, whereas for all intents and purposes, the two programs could be merged. In fact, the Engineers Registration Board (ERB) , has been at loggerheads with such universities, as it does not deem the new engineering programs offered as being up to scratch. The board has refused to register the graduates of the new courses and the affected universities have had to recall some of the students to sit for additional units so as to be eligible for registration as an engineer. The Commission for Higher education (CHE), is still mediating between universities and the engineers board. Whereas one might be able to get employment with the academic certificate, they need a professional certificate to practice, especially in the civil service and the highly respected companies.

While the parallel degree program is here to stay, it needs some modification so that universities do not lose sight of their core mission, which is to ensure the highest level of academic standards are attained, and their certificates are respected. The conflict of interest between maintaining high academic standards and allowing a huge number of students to be admitted is a delicate affair, and will have to be addressed amicably.

The chief concern for universities seems to be how to fund raise for universities while ensuring that the highest academic standards are maintained. Some universities have started forming entrepreneurial ventures so as to act as a revenue generating stream. For instance, JKUAT has the JKUAT enterprises, which sells everything from Yoghurts, banana seeds to other commercial innovations from the university. University of Nairobi also has its own private arm, which ensures a monetization of all the innovations that spring out of the university. The Matlab, a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology amongst other donors, helps in such ventures, be they from students or lecturers.

The Kenyatta University incubation center, with assistance from the Chandaria foundation and the Youth enterprise fund, is also showing signs of being a game changer, if implemented correctly. It aims to nurture the students’ incubations and convert the ideas from students and lecturers to tangible products and services, and hopefully bring
more revenue to the university. One criticism of such incubation centers is that they are administered by academic staff mostly, who in many cases may not have the requisite hands on skills to transform an idea into a viable business. So, it may well have been left to seasoned entrepreneurs to run such programs, and this would have come with enormous benefits, for they would have known, or increased the odds of picking the winners. Let’s face it, it is better to have a few entrepreneurs picked, and excel, than having many numerous entrepreneurs whose businesses would be tinkering on failure. 

It is also worth mentioning that few universities have rally not made any sue of endowment funds, which are a crucial sources of revenue for many universities the world over. By encouraging their former students to donate, corporate who have benefited from the education system at almost no cost, such universities would be able to diversify away from the tuition fees. Private universities have faired better in this area than the public universities. They do have a fairly large endowment fund, which are then invested in stocks, bonds, creating some kind of perpetuity account, ensuring a constant supply of income. For instance, USIU is reputed to have the largest endowment fund among the universities in Kenya, and has been able to offer a few full scholarships to needy but otherwise deserving students. Kenyatta University also set up an endowment fund about three years ago, although the trends of the course have not been made public.

So, in a nutshell, the parallel programs are here to stay, although the concern by the regular students and other critics should not be overlooked, if the universities hope to increase their academic quality and be ranked highly not only in the region, but also in Africa and the world, since, I believe, that is their ultimate aim.

Follow me on twitter at @cmabinda


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