Kenya witnessed an unprecedented expansion of its university system in the past few decades. However, this growth occurred against the backdrop of a stagnant or declining professorial class, raising concerns about academic leadership, knowledge generation, mentorship, and overall university reputation.

In the recent revelation, a Kenyan vice-chancellor publicly addressed the scarcity of university professors, shedding light on the alarming statistics. With fewer than 1,000 professors serving 68 universities and a student body exceeding 562,000, the average student-to-professor ratio stands at approximately 563 students per professor. To put this in perspective, South Africa, with 4,034 professors, maintains a ratio of around 275 students per professor.

Professors, holding the highest teaching rank in universities, distinguish themselves through excellence in teaching, research, scholarship, and service. This includes extensive publication in renowned journals, substantial research grant generation, and impactful community engagement activities.

The roots of the professor shortage trace back to the rapid expansion of Kenya’s university system. In 2010, the country had 32 universities with around 177,175 students. Today, the number of universities has more than doubled, and enrollment has tripled. Despite the surge in university enrollment by over 31%, the average number of students per professor has decreased by 27%, indicating a consistent pattern of a low professor-to-student ratio.

For public universities alone, government data reveals a 70% increase in student population over the past decade, while the number of professors grew by only 11%. This scarcity poses challenges to academic leadership, knowledge generation, mentorship, and overall university reputation in a fiercely competitive global academic landscape.

Scholars specializing in African higher education attribute the shortage to factors such as low graduation rates of PhD holders, the university system’s rapid expansion, heavy workloads, absence of a supportive academic scholarship culture, and the departure of prominent academics from universities.

To address this pressing issue, universities could consider fast-tracking PhD graduation for academic staff, reducing part-time academic staff in private universities, and developing a government-supported national research program to promote rigorous scholarship.

The causes of the professor shortage are multifaceted, including the rapid expansion of the university system leading to massive class sizes, hindering research efforts. The heavy workload not only affects career progression but also exhibits a gender dimension, limiting women’s advancement in academia due to culturally defined domestic expectations.

Universities, even established ones like the University of Nairobi, lack a culture that nurtures and rewards rigorous research. Clear research goals, rigorous criteria for evaluation, student involvement strategies, budget guidelines, and incentives are notably absent, resulting in lower research outcomes.

Prominent academics leaving universities for better opportunities or due to poor working conditions further exacerbate the shortage. The suppression of academic freedom and a decline in intellectualism within universities are additional triggers for this migration.

As the professor class diminishes, so does the number of PhD graduates. Kenya falls significantly short of producing the required 2,400 PhDs annually, managing only 230. This scarcity not only affects institutional reputation but also hampers the ability to attract competitive research grants, international partnerships, and quality faculty and students.

To rectify the situation, universities must expedite the graduation of PhD candidates, particularly those entering the teaching ranks. Private universities, known for employing part-time lecturers for cost-effectiveness, should limit this practice, as part-timers often lack the capacity for doctoral student supervision and scholarly engagement.

Government-supported initiatives to create an environment conducive to rigorous research and scholarship, including policies on sabbatical leave and incentives for securing research grants, are essential. Learning from South Africa’s model, precise frameworks for research, publications, rewards, and promotions can help Kenyan universities maintain international standings while addressing historical inequities.

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