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Olive Mugenda, former vice-chancellor, Kenyatta University

Olive Mugenda became the first female vice-chancellor in East Africa, when she joined Kenyatta University in Nairobi 10 years ago. Having only left her position this year, she tells The PIE about how she met her 10-year strategy goals, and shares some of the challenges facing Kenya’s HE sector.

The PIE: Can you tell me about Kenyatta University?

In my 10-year strategic plan, one vision was to increase the number of international students and by the time I left we had about 300

OM: Kenyatta University is the biggest university in Kenya in student numbers. When I took over in 2006 we had 15,000 students and when I left this year we had 70,000. It is named after the founding president, Kenyatta. It has grown in all disciplines, too. I took over with about six schools, when I left this year we had 13.

The PIE: Tell me about your experience becoming the first woman VC in a public university in Kenya and all of East Africa. 

OM: It was 10 years ago and it was a big thing but at that time I didn’t think it was a big deal, I didn’t know I was making history. But I am happy I proved that women can lead. There has been a lot of transformation, everybody is talking about the university, the transformation that has taken place, a lot of that is being talked about in the country so I am happy that I did not let the women down.

I didn’t think it was a big deal, I didn’t know I was making history. But I am happy I proved that women can lead

The PIE: How many international students are at Kenyatta University?

OM: In my 10-year strategic plan, one vision was to increase the number of international students and by the time I left we had about 300 international students – still not where we want to be but a very good improvement because those 300 students come from 17 countries. They are first degree, they are master’s, others are coming for short term courses. So a big improvement of where we were but we would at the end of the day like 1-2% international students in the future.

The PIE: What else does the strategic plan include?

OM: Some of the key highlights in the plan include developing the question of access, which you can see we increased the number of students. But the access to us was not just in numbers, we needed it to be more inclusive, so we started a programme where the university admits the largest number of students with special needs, and we came up with systems and programmes to make sure they are comfortable in the university. For example, we renovated rooms so they can actually have their own washroom, we targeted the pavements so they can get to all the buildings – so that is access.

Then the other key indicator in the strategic plan is research and innovation; we wanted to make sure that in 10 years we really strengthened research and innovation. One strategy, we call the Innovation and Incubation Centre, where we decided that our students who have good, innovative ideas can incubate them for like six months or one year, depending on their idea, and within this time we help them sharpen the idea. Then we get investors who come and invest in the idea. That is going very well. We have about 60 companies at the innovation centre, so all that was part of the research and innovation agenda.

The other one is infrastructure. Because Kenyatta University used to be an army barrack, it is the president then who said this army barrack should not be used for guns but it should be used for brains. With that he turned the barrack into a university and because of that we didn’t start like a new university, we didn’t have a lot of infrastructure. My strategy in the 10 years I was there was to make sure that infrastructure is built, and we did that.

We started a programme where the university admits the largest number of students with special needs

The PIE: How did student mobility develop over your time at the university?

OM: That started a little bit even before my time because I happened to have been the director of international programmes before at one point and really popularised the international programmes at the university. We started getting students from the US and the UK who would come for a summer programme and that became very popular, so when I became the vice chancellor I just made sure we expanded that.

We realised when we collaborated with the US or UK universities on study abroad, if you look at the statistics, 90% of the students come from other countries and very few go because they are not able to afford it.

So to go around that we say we started an Intra-Africa exchange programme. I talked to my colleagues, the vice-chancellors in Africa in different forums and we said why don’t we start something among ourselves, so that for example if a student pays fees in our university and accommodation, when they go to your university they don’t pay, so that end is taken care of. And then we say, why don’t we also put the extra money for them to pay the airfare or bus fare, eventually they may be required to pay, but just to start with to strengthen the programme. So we did that and it is amazing how many students there are, we can’t even satisfy the list of students it is so big.

As long as the content is the same, you go and take the course there and then you can transfer the grade back. The students like it because you are not going to lose time. What I like about it is when a student goes and comes back, or even the ones that come from those universities and they go back, those students are never the same, in terms of attitude, in terms of global outlook and those students can actually get into international work in the future just by that effort.

We started an Intra-Africa exchange programme and it is amazing how many students there are, we can’t even satisfy the list of students it is so big

The PIE: What are some of the main issues facing the international higher education sector in Kenya?

OM: The key thing is still access to higher education and this is because we tend to admit students based on the capacity within the public universities. For example if public universities can take 70,000 students this year, this is about probably 40% of those students who qualify to go to universities. So more than 50% of students who qualify don’t go. Some of them are taken by the private universities, but again in terms of national agenda, at the private universities you have to pay much much more, the government cannot subsidise. I think the key challenge for the government is how do we increase access so that anybody who qualifies to go to university has the chance.

The second one is I think we have not been able to entrench research in our universities as it should be and that is both at the government level and at the university level. I tried my best to do it and that needs to continue, but we need to create a research culture. That is what universities do. So people are not just going to do teaching and part time teaching to get more money. The culture really needs to be entrenched, in universities you find probably 20-30% are doing what they should in terms of research but the rest are not. So at government, national and university level we need to really entrench the research because that is what drives the economy.

We need to create a research culture, that is what universities do

The PIE: Looking into the future, where do you see the big changes happening in higher education in Kenya?

OM: Right now we have a very progressive minister who is really forward looking and can bring about changes so I am very happy about that. I think the big changes will be in using universities to help meet the national goals, to do research. There will be more alignment with what the universities are doing and looking at the Kenya Vision 2030 plan. He is requiring the universities to go through the vision and actually see what they can do and I think that is a plus.

The other one we are trying to address for the future is access, it is so key. How does the country ensure that at least probably 80% of the movement from primary to secondary is then movement from secondary to university. From primary to secondary is not so bad, from secondary to university, in the future I believe we must do.

I think the whole question of employability is the other challenge that must be addressed because we are talking about increasing this number who are transitioning from secondary to university but then if they don’t have a jobs, that is a problem. Increasing this percentage is so important for the government otherwise there is no point in them increasing access.

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