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Kenya Grapples with Brain-drain Troubles
By Katy Salmon
Inter Press Service

    NAIROBI, Apr 11 (IPS) - Efforts to stem Kenya's debilitating 'brain drain' of smart young students are becoming mired in controversy with critics accusing the government of devaluing degrees and making them an expensive waste of time.
   Every year, 30,000 Kenyans head overseas to study in Europe, the United States and Asia because of the limited access to higher education at home.
   It takes time, persistence and money to arrange a passport and travel papers from offices, including the government, which are often unhelpful and sometimes downright obstructive, but it does not stem the exodus.
   After completion of their studies abroad, faced with the choice of myriad opportunities for professional and financial success or a return to recession and crime-riddled Kenya, thousands opt to stay on, often illegally.
   Inevitably, the loss of its ''brightest and best'' talent has made Kenya's attempts to drag itself out of poverty and progress down the road to development all the more difficult.
   How to extend university education to satisfy the aspirations of Kenyans is one question which has troubled successive governments. In the last couple of years Kenya has attempted to meet this through the introduction of parallel degree programmes.
   Parallel students have to pay all of their fees themselves, whereas the bulk of regular students' costs are met by the government. The two groups are taught separately, although they follow the same syllabus. But the experiment seems to be turning into a serious mistake.
   Parallel degrees have become devalued with educationists complaining that academic standards are being sacrificed. Even, the government's own Koech Report, August 1999, admits to a lack of ''equity quality control and quality assurance'' in parallel programmes.
   Students with grades as low as C plus are now gaining admission to competitive professional courses like medicine and law on parallel degree programmes. Previously, these demanding subjects were reserved for students with A minus or above.
   Not surprisingly, many of these students are struggling to keep up with the rigorous standards demanded of them.
   ''It is highly probable that there will either be a high number of drop-outs from the courses or mass failures since universities cannot possibly remedy deficiencies of secondary schooling,'' says George Ogola, a journalist who specialises in education. ''Too many people are being encouraged to undertake degrees even those not capable of study at that level.''
   Ogola highlights another potentially dangerous flaw in the government's programme. ''A number of universities are introducing irrelevant degrees. There is already a surplus of Arts graduates. We don't need anymore. Technical training should be strengthened for it is here that Kenya has a deficit.''
   The end result -- thousands of idle, frustrated, graduates who are unable to find jobs -- is undoubtedly a recipe for trouble.
   In Nairobi, student riots, which paralyse its central business district, are already a regular occurrence. The spark can be anything from serious political issues like constitutional reform or government corruption to poor accommodation standards.
   ''What's the point?'' asks a disillusioned Charles Otieno of the education system. ''At the end of it you have a mountain debt of school fees and a little valued education.'' A degree programme costs Ksh120,000 or 1,760 dollars a year.
   The introduction of student fees in 1995 followed changes in donor thinking, as William Saint, a World Bank consultant on education, explains. ''Fees are a means of increasing university funding. They make universities more responsive to student needs by instilling the concepts of students as clients.''
   But things have not worked out as Saint envisaged. This is because of the mode of funding. The more students an institution accepts, the more money the government grants, regardless of whether it can deliver the services its ''clients'' are paying for. As a result students increasingly feel cheated.
   In other cases, the ''student as client'' theory seems to have been taken too literally with lecturers being accused of spending more time with parallel students because they earn more from them. ''There's antipathy and resentment ... They hate each other,'' says one anonymous student.
   Others question the government's decision to sink scarce resources into higher education when millions cannot even afford school. In Kenya, a paltry 150,000 pupils manage to complete secondary education each year. Only 5 to 10 percent of secondary school graduates in sub-Saharan Africa go on to university.
  Where does this leave Kenya's ambitious students, yearning for a university education? The African Virtual University (AVU) -- the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa -- set up at Kenyatta University two years ago could offer a way forward.
   The institution's courses -- in science and computers -- are transmitted from universities abroad. The AVU has a digital library that enable users to access thousands of educational materials on-line from a number of countries.
   ''AVU has the potential of revolutionising education in Kenya. It has a potential that has not yet been exploited,'' says a former student at the college.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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