Technical University of Kenya: graduates’ story of triumph amid adversity
“Even in our best schools, we are teaching our kids to
memorise much more than to think,” – Tony Wagner
While very few good things can be said about Kenya’s first polytechnical university, an interesting accident came with its formation that potentially heralds change in delivery of higher education.
With the situation seemingly moving from bad to damnation for an institution dreamingly touted as the MIT of Africa, it is important to enumerate critical lessons learned by students lucky to graduate before they are completely obscured by actions of a failed management.
You see the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) is not your typical university. Over 90 per cent of the nearly 20,000 students aren’t housed by the institution, creating a lucrative business for unscrupulous landlords and private hostel proprietors.
To be precise, the ladies’ (Upperhill) hostel has a total of 54 rooms shared by 3 (162), while the men’s (South B) 136 rooms are shared by 2 (272).
Baptism by fire
While freshmen in other government institutions troop in to ready on-campus accommodation and free amenities including sporting facilities, a teenager fresh from secondary school to TUK is faced with a myriad of challenges.
If you have no relatives in Nairobi, you land at Nairobi’s CBD with all your luggage on registration date, upbeat and ready to experience ‘freedom of knowledge’ as TUK VC Francis Aduol would put it during orientation. But instead of the glam, you have been hearing all along, you are faced by a 9-acre establishment with barely enough space left for a pool table, leave alone hostels.
It is at this point that a distraught parent starts making phone calls and asking around whomever they can see for help to get accommodation as the cumbersome registration drags on. Unbudgeted rent expense for the poor parent kicks in. Did you hear me? RENT…
If you’ve used Enterprise Road (off Haile Selassie Avenue), then you are familiar with Landmawe, a dilapidated estate with non-existent drainage but from which some of TUK’s brightest minds emerge every morning. Tin cubicles whose pseudo-landlords charge exorbitant rates with up to 10 student tenants sharing one bathroom-cum-toilet!
In a couple of months, the freshman is fully initiated into the city’s neck break hassle; barely making ends meet, taking odd side hustles, handling feuding landlords while at the same time flourishing in the innovative atmosphere that TUK graciously provides.
Survival of the fittest
After four grueling years, a weary TUK graduate steps into Haile Selassie Avenue literally reborn, totally divorced from the freebie-craving juvenile and leads the pack of over 60,000 graduates condemned to ceaseless tarmacking, but unlike them, he’s seen it all. Or in the spirit of the institution’s motto ‘trained for the real world’.
While their compatriots in other public universities enjoy subsidized meals, nearly free accommodation and blissfully spend their HELB loan, TUK ‘ninjas’ are skipping meals to pay rent, electricity, water transport and knocking on every door that promises opportunity.
In The Global Achievement Gap, American Author and Harvard University’s Innovation Lab Expert In Residence, Dr Tony Wagner, enumerates survival skills the world’s ‘best’ schools fail to teach including critical thinking and problem solving, agility, adaptability and entrepreneurism.
And here’s that accidental success of the mad rush to convert middle-level colleges into universities I talked about earlier, unique to the Technical University of Kenya.
Pushed beyond the limit
TUK students are forced into a four-year predicament that compels them to go beyond the limits of their imagination and creativity even with their backs against the wall. The hostile environment they find themselves in eliminates the possibility of a comfort zone and with it, fertile ground for experimentation.
It is indeed true that in the 3 years of the varsity’s existence, TUK has a growing portfolio of innovators whose solutions have awed their peers in privileged institutions. A quick tour of the institution’s website can provide testimony to this.
With employer reports indicating that universities are churning out mediocre graduates than ever before and the fact that they are not only unemployable but incapable of being job creators, it would be agreeable that a far from cozy college experience is needed to awaken these laggards wasting away in contentment.
A 2005 Quarter One Talent Report as quoted by the Daily Nation, ranks TUK graduates as 5th most preferred by employers behind Moi University and one position ahead of Kenya’s oldest institution of higher learning, Egerton University!
TUK has been consistently ranked top among the over 10 university colleges chartered in the 2012/13 period. It’s unsurprising since majority are rural universities which have consistently exhibited what can be described as products of lazy, intellectually unengaged pubescents; for instance a recent student unrest at Kisii University over very basic examination rules!
That’s is arguably the sole success story of the misguided conversion of tertiary institutions into universities, which is to a large extent attributable to the unique location and resource challenges presenting an unbeatable motivation for the hapless learners.
This interesting accident is however, being halted by an ostensibly incompetent management oblivious of the opportunity at hand. On the verge of bankruptcy, the dream of an ‘MIT of Africa’ is more elusive than ever.