Kenyan Students Blame Professors for Delays in Studies
By Maurice N. Amutabi
My article “Why Kenyans take forever to acquire PhDs” which appeared in the Daily Nation of April 20, 2011, elicited overwhelming response from readers, by e-mail and telephone, mainly from students and lecturers in public and private universities in Kenya and abroad. I have decided to pass on the responses from both groups, separately.
Many Kenyan students responded to the article, pointing out additional factors on why they delay in getting their PhDs and masters degrees. Some of the factors seem to revolve around lack of proper structures and guidelines in university graduate programmes in Kenya. Some universities did not have graduate handbooks explaining the responsibility of supervisors and students. The supervisors and students were ignorant of graduation requirements, process of selection of supervisors, project time frames and thesis submission and examination requirements, style and formatting requirements as well as notice of defence. In some programmes, the students did not have a say on who should supervise them.
One student asked in his e-mail message to me: “Why is it that Kenyan students go out there and excel to unthinkable/un-imaginable levels in almost all fields within a short period yet it is not so here?” The student then explained the case of his former classmate at a public university who completed his doctorate degree in Solar Cell development abroad and even won an award for “outstanding research” yet the same proposal was rubbished when he attempted to present the same to a local university. The student said that it took one of his friends four years to earn a master’s degree in physics at a local university and “yet it took him 3 years to get a PhD in physics at an American university where he is currently an assistant professor.” He concluded, “I honestly and whole heartedly agree with your entire article. Thanks and keep up the good work. It may take a while but I know somebody will finally see the light and they will put in structures to curb the anomalies.”
Allocation of supervisors to students was undemocratic in many Kenyan universities, compared to universities abroad. Kenyan students lamented that sometimes they were allocated supervisors with bad track records and they did not have mechanisms of asking for another supervisor. In some universities, students reported that some supervisors canvassed to be allocated too many students for supervision, not because they were efficient but because of financial incentives, since they were paid per thesis and dissertation supervised. A student currently studying in a public university complained that some good supervisors were not allocated students to supervise if they were in bad books with the head of department.
The first stage in preparation for research was mishandled by many universities. Students were not adequately prepared for field research. Students appeared to be left to their own devices, especially when it came to writing research proposals. Many students indicated that they were told to write research proposals covering the usual steps – introduction, background of the study, statement of the problem, objectives, hypotheses/research questions, justification/rationale, literature review, theoretical framework/conceptual framework, methodology, expected findings, conclusion, and references – but without clear explanation on when to use for example hypotheses or research questions, or the difference between theoretical framework and conceptual framework. Some universities did not have prototypes or sample proposals for the benefit of graduate students. Some students did not even have the benefit of looking at previous research proposals submitted by previous students because they universities did not keep such records.
Many students in Kenyan universities did not know when to expect feedback from their supervisors after handing over a proposal or a chapter. In many institutions outside Kenya, the professor and the student sit down at the beginning and draw a time table within which a thesis or dissertation needs to be completed based on a schedule agreeable to both. It was apparent that supervision schedules are lacking in many Kenyan universities. If wok is based on an agreed schedule, the submission by student is often within two weeks after feedback. The feedback is also to be given by the supervisor within two weeks after receiving student’s work. One cannot take more than 2 weeks with a student’s proposal or chapter without valid explanation. For accountability purposes, students sign when they hand in work to the supervisor, usually through secretaries. The supervisor also signs when he hands back feedback. This makes everyone accountable. It was clear that many of the delays were caused by lack of accountability on both parties.
Some of the responses seemed to lay blame on the nature of the schedules of their supervisors. They said that getting a supervisor in the office was hard, even when they sought appointments with them. They said that many of their supervisors taught in many other universities and one had to practically chase after them if they expected any feedback at all. Students lamented that the supervisors spent little time with them. This resulted in inadequate feedback. There is no doubt that because of tight time available for meetings and exchange of views on the progress of the student, it affected the quality of the thesis or dissertation.
Students also reported that due to too much work and fatigue, some supervisors had terrible mood swings. The quality of feedback depended on where and when you met them. If you met them after a long day, you received mouthfuls and expletives on almost anything on your project, most of it not encouraging. But if you met them in the morning or on a good day, the feedback was better.
Some students reported that some supervisors demanded to be met in bars and hotels, which is not a bad thing at all. What was bad is that some expected the students to foot some of the bills, especially if they knew that the student was employed. Students reported that some of these meetings outside the universities also led to unethical social demands by some supervisors. One student responding from a public university in Kenya lamented how she was not able to complete her studies on time because the supervisor insisted on some social relation with her first. A male student in a public university also reported that supervisees had to run informal errands for their female supervisor in order to progress in the programme. While she looked at his thesis chapters, she would demand that he should be doing something for her, such as marking essays of her undergraduate students or invigilate her exams.
Some students were victims of ethnic and gender malice and vendetta. There was one student from a famous public university who wrote, “I am one of the students who have really been worked on by a well organized cartel of lecturers hell bent on making sure I will never pass my exams.” This student claimed that he was victimized because he did not bribe his lecturers. He wrote, “First, I do not believe in bribing to pass my exams because am not intellectually incapacitated. Secondly, some lecturers have turned Universities into their cash cows, their sources of wealth at the expense of the poor. This is the reason [why] some lecturers shamelessly and arrogantly stand in front of a class and openly tell students ‘most of you will never pass your exams as long as am in this university.’” He reports further that, “This is intimidation so that you can play into their hands, either part with money, sex if female or employ their kin if you are one of those tycoons in town.” He then names famous individuals who have passed their exams at the said university easily and complete their degrees in time compared to poor students. This is a totally new angle that I did not know existed when I wrote my earlier article, where rich Kenyans are given more attention in class compared to poor Kenyans.
The ethnic angle also surfaced in much of the correspondence. One student in a public university wrote, “…some schools have been turned into tribal colleges, where if you are not from the right tribe you’ll never pass whatever the case.” Though not totally new to me, I found this claim totally disturbing. It flies in the face of the claims made by various commissions that have been created in this country to monitor ethnic discrimination in public institutions. What bothered me more was the claim by this student that there is a faculty at a public university in which “…less than two students pass in a class of 60, every year with a masters degree.” He says that the students pay between Kshs 400,000.00 to Kshs 500,000.00 in fees, per year, thereby suggesting that it could be reason the university wants to keep them around for long.
Prof. Amutabi teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.