What do standards really mean in the academia?

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Dr Tom Odhiambo

There has been public debate in media in recent times, about who between the student and the teacher is the culprit when course marks “disappear” in universities. Some professors have ventured to defend their turf, often trying to show that the students are to blame for engaging in all manners of chicanery to graduate without attending class. Of course when students respond, they simply laugh at such teachers, rightly so, I think.

Why?

Because when marks are “lost”, as students are generally told, it is the height of irresponsibility by the teachers. Period. If the lecturer actually taught during the entire semester, examined and graded the learners at the end of the semester, as expected (and which is why the professor is paid), how does a mark grow legs and run away from the mark sheet? By what standards is such a fellow who “loses” students’ marks a professor?

This debate should be bigger and louder than it is. This culture of incompetence in our universities, which always ends up punishing the student, is often hidden under the cloak of ‘standards.’ There is an assumption that if a student’s mark can’t be found on the final grade list, then that particular student fell short of the expected standards – that the learner didn’t meet the requirements for the course. It is this standards issue that needs more debating – standards that seem only to apply one way. Nearly all our universities claim to be founded on high or global standards of academic and, I should add, administrative standards. 

But what do our universities mean when they talk about “world standards?” What world are they referring to, these very local institutions? In what sense do they apply the two words – world and standards? Who certifies that these Kenyan universities are teaching, researching and conducting their affairs using global values? Is some ranking on a webpage proof that the teachers and administrators in these universities are even half competent as they declare now and then? Does the Commission for University Education even have what we would call “Kenyan” principles guiding university education, which principles could qualify as world quality?

It is common knowledge that standards applicable in one culture will often fall short in another. This is not to say that there can’t be universal standards. No. It is simply to say that in many cases, when standards are cited, they tend to ignore local or specific circumstances in which they are applied. There are times when those who speak about standards simply ignore individual or cultural differences. They can speak as if there is one rubric that fits all, wherever in the world. 

Some examples will suffice here. There is an obsession with our universities announcing “international conferences.” Our scholars and administrators think that unless a colloquium has the adjective “international” qualifying it, then it isn’t up to scratch. Yet these international conferences are very local. They are local in the sense that they are quite predictable in the way they are always about Kenya or Africa. After all, how many Kenyan scholars have the resources of opportunity to research beyond their villages or the borders of this country? Actually many of these conferences are mere sessions to talk about one aspect of “development”, either in the past or in future. Eventually some of these essays are published in local “internationally recognized” journals.

The issue of publishing in internationally recognised journals has spawned another set of difficult to attain standards. Graduate students are under intense pressure to publish some of their chapters in accredited journals before they can graduate. But apparently there isn’t an accreditation body in this country to certify local journals. So, how does an institution determine that a student’s essay has been published in a journal that maintains academically sound standards? How does a student decide what journal to publish in?

As matters stand today in Kenya, the student has no “standard” reference. She will be advised by either the supervisor or a fellow student. Or one of the many hustlers (including lecturers) who have set up (non-refereed or predatory) journals in the tens of “research kiosks” found in our universities. The lecturers advising the student to send their article to a particular accredited journal abroad may never have published in such periodical themselves. They may not know the history of the said publication or its in-house style and rules or the composition of its board.

Where the student ends up with the local “international journal”, there is no guarantee that the examination committee of the university will accept the publication as of good standards. Why? Because most of these journals are quite generous, publishing any essay on any or all subjects under the sun in the same issue. So, what standard is the student who has registered for an accredited course at a CUE endorsed university that also claims to be of a world standard and a centre of academic excellence but doesn’t practice the most basic of academic standards being subjected to?

If one’s own teacher doesn’t feel confident enough to establish a local journal, or publish their research locally; if the university itself doesn’t feel self-confident enough to issue its own standards of academic excellence; if CUE has never bothered to determine the standards by which an international or local journal is to be judged as good for Kenyan scholars to publish in, then why are Kenyan graduate students pouring millions of shillings into research that will be adjudged as to have fallen short of indeterminate standards?

Considering where our universities are today, when everything, from simple administrative tasks like clerical recording of marks to complex issues like harmonising degree programmes to produce holistic graduates are in question, it is surprising that these universities still pretend to be aspiring to some global standards.

Wouldn’t it make sense to start from establishing some local standards? Shouldn’t students who enter these universities first be guaranteed that their programs meet local expectations but do in fact reflect global trends and standards? Shouldn’t local professors spend more time establishing local research networks and centres instead of being excited about how many foreign institutions they are affiliated to? What sense is there in going overseas to read a paper about the “social dangers of chewing muguka for the youth in Nyambene sub-county” when you can’t convert your research into policy to address the problem locally?

Our universities, which should be setting standards, have ceded such responsibilities to external agencies, which indeed do certify them as meeting “global” standards, when reality on the ground suggests that there is a rapid downslide towards mismanagement, wastage or outright theft of resources, nepotism in staff employment, mediocrity of staff, decline in quality of teaching, rampant cheating in exams, among other ills. It is easy, therefore, to reach the conclusion that our universities need to strive to address local issues first, before pretending to be global in outlook.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.