AfricaLive: What does it mean to be an African institution of higher education in this day and age?
Prof John Odhiambo: When I was growing up, a standard African university was meant to address the issue of manpower development. In other words, institutions of learning were meant to train locals to replace the colonial officers. These days, that has changed completely because African higher education institutions must play a role in helping their nation advance in a social and economic way.
Universities must be seen as change agents and contributors to social and economic change, which requires them to work not in isolation, but in response to international standards and outlook. We must also have collaborative research with developed economies in a way that helps our government to help qualified personnel and researchers. An African university can no longer be seen to be second rate, all our institutions must aspire to have the minimum standards that the world sets out. Achieving these standards is hard though, with the limiting factor being resources.
AfricaLive: What would you say is the role of Strathmore University in creating the next generation of professionals that Kenya needs to prosper?
Prof John Odhiambo: Strathmore was set up to create a learning environment that does away with racial prejudice and any form of hatred. It is an institution that affirms equality and the right of everyone to live and pursue their dreams. In the post-colonial context of self-rule, we must continue to espouse unity among the many tribes in the country. We must stay true by carefully observing how we recruit staff and how we enrol students.
Our education provision must also provide a broad knowledge that goes beyond just succeeding academically, but also being a productive member of society. We have to pay attention to developing students personally and not just ensuring their grades look good. If we consider the student to be the input, then the output must be a graduate who is a good citizen that can serve the country well. We teach them a lot of professional and personal ethics as well as industry ethics so that they can not only be technocrats but also leaders. Our purpose is to give an all-round package that helps equip students with not only personal skills but also social ethics that can help them gain the respect of society.
AfricaLive: There are a lot of global changes taking place especially when it comes to technology. How are you as an institution preparing for some of the changes that are on the way?
Prof John Odhiambo: Before the pandemic, universities not only in Kenya but the whole world were striving to tool students properly for the job market. The fourth industrial revolution is also underway so other than tooling students for existing jobs, we must also look at equipping them for the jobs of tomorrow.
When we speak internally and also with other universities, we understand that data revolution is a big topic. Universities are, therefore, coming to the realisation that we must keep up with the world. We have to stay updated and train students for the jobs of the future or else lose our credibility. The questions we were asking ourselves before Covid-19 were; what will future jobs look like? Will we be teaching the same way? How will data science influence the future? With the onset of the pandemic, universities have been jerked forward in a way that has made them move forward with their plans faster than scheduled. We have to focus our strategies so that ICT, data science and open innovation become central moving forward.
We must provide our students with skills that are helpful in problem-solving, challenge-based education must be what we go for now. Challenge-based learning will help students prepare for the jobs of the future because they will have the problem-solving skills necessary.
AfricaLive: What are some of the goals you have identified when it comes to entrepreneurship, ties with industry and other academic institutions?
Prof John Odhiambo: First I would like to see our research driving innovative solutions that get the attention of those in wider society. Our research must be the impetus for innovation in a way that will lead to the development of enterprises in collaboration with industry out there.
Our educational approach has always had a mind for entrepreneurship even before other institutions around started focusing on that. We want to take our entrepreneurial focus a notch higher by exposing students to practical entrepreneurship. Students must also submit their projects in lieu of dissertations that are based on business startups. The idea is for students of whatever discipline to have the problem solving skills necessary to take risks and innovate. One of our core pillars is enhancing society. I am laying emphasis on research projects as well as consultancy undertakings that confront every day challenges faced by Kenyans. I have to ensure that our institution continues to be seen as a problem solver and an asset to society. All the research that we do whether in public policy or health care policy should have a direct impact on society
When it comes to the fourth industrial revolution, I want to have data science present in all areas of specialisation. Data science is of interest to us because of its cross-disciplinary nature. It helps in solving unforeseen problems across the board.
AfricaLive: We have spoken to many African vice-chancellors on the drive to create quality local research that has a direct impact on local businesses and societies. What is your approach to creating practical research to advance the Kenyan economy?
Prof John Odhiambo: People complain that our research outputs are low but that is not the biggest area of concern for me. I am more concerned with the quality of research we produce.
In most Kenyan universities, people get their doctorates then have to publish to move up in rank. Sometimes the promotions are directly linked to the number of publications they do, this places emphasis on numbers and not on impact.
We want to move away from number of publications, and focus on quality of research. Quality research will give us grounds to speak to the government and make them listen.
We must also invest in our doctorate students. Once a young man or woman gets a PHD, we must have a fund in place to help them grow. We must help develop the intellectual and skill muscles required to make proposals that can lead to national and international change. When they develop enough experience, they will be able to compete for international grants and build global credibility.
We are lucky to have professors here who are internationally recognised in their areas of study. We have one who is known for his work in renewable energy and has played a big part in us being a centre of excellence for that. The university has a seat on the government table when it comes to renewable energy and, therefore, we can request for research funds to help pursue our agenda. We also have two renowned professors in healthcare who have played a big role in the modernisation of Kenya’s medical landscape. Professionals like these help us gain an audience with the government on many fronts, which is great not only for us but the society at large.
AfricaLive: There is a significant funding gap facing the higher education sector across the African continent. What can be done for African institutions to gain more funds and do more work with industry?
Prof John Odhiambo: Financing has been a huge challenge for Kenyan universities. About a decade ago, academia worked with the ministry to design a research and development policy. A fund was created to help support the policy which is by law, supposed to receive 2 per cent of our national budget.
The research fund has components of PhD and Masters level research that helps to create impact. If the government properly funds it, then this will be a very good starting point. Another issue is the involvement of foreign bodies in our research. We collaborate with researchers from the EU and America to develop high impact proposals in areas of energy, blended learning, public health, clinical trials and drug testing. These collaborations help our researchers access funds from international organizations that have very demanding criteria.
I believe we should also engage more amongst ourselves here in Africa. Institutions of higher learning within the continent would benefit immensely if we worked together to get funds from our governments and even tap into international funds directed to Africa. We have a deliberate approach to pursuing collaborations at Strathmore University and that has helped us because we now have a UNESCO chair on energy.
AfricaLive: How confident are you about the future of Strathmore and Kenya?
Prof John Odhiambo: We are a continent full of talent, we just have to harness it properly. Our professors are not inferior to those that teach in more advanced economies. Our exchange programs show us that the level of knowledge is similar. We have to embrace these professionals and utilise them to help develop our continent. I am not a believer in brain drain because I believe we should be spread out all over the place. People gain different perspectives and knowledge from travelling and some of them even come back to teach at the campus for free.
Our education must also be refocussed in a way that addresses the needs of our people. We have a future without a doubt, but we must embrace the digital revolution, data revolution, innovation and entrepreneurship.