The Making of a ‘‘University of the Future’’: A Conversation with Dr. Kennedy Okongó, Chairman of the University of Embu (UoEm) Council

University of Embu Council Chairman Dr.Kennedy Okongó during a graduation ceremony at the institution in 2020: PHOTO: University of Embu

The University of Embu (UoEm), was ranked the best performing state corporation in Kenya for the 2019/2020 financial year, in evaluations undertaken by the Public Service Performance Management Unit at the Ministry of Public Service and Gender.

The university, whose rich history dates back to 1947 when it started as the Embu Agricultural Staff College, has set its eyes firmly as an educational centre of excellence in the region.

The man currently chairing the university’s Council is Dr. Kennedy Okongó, who, at 39, has the onerous task of sustaining this streak of excellence.

Having been appointed to chair the Council in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Dr. Okongó says his work and that of the Council is clear; to position the UoEm as the ‘‘University of the Future.’’

The ICT policy specialist with stints in Africa, Asia and Latin America, holds a PhD in Information Systems from University of Cape Town, South Africa.

I spoke to him on his appointment, the COVID-19 crisis on the education sector and what the future holds for the university.

CG: Tell us a Little About Yourself

KO: I was born in former Western province but grew up in different parts of Kenya including Nyanza, Coast and Central provinces. I am an ICT policy specialist with interest at the nexus of public policy and digital technologies.

With over 10 years of work experience, I have had stints working in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, in both public and private sectors. In these roles, I have done analytical work, led in-country ICT policy dialogues and roundtables, delivered technical advisory to governments and intergovernmental agencies. I have also spoken on international platforms to amplify best digital inclusion policies and practices. Currently, I support the United Nations Foundation’s work in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone, like many African countries, is taking advantage of the opportunities provided by ICTs to advance its economic growth and I support the country’s minister for Information and Communications in living the aspiration.

I am the third born in a family of six – four sisters and two brothers. I am husband and a father of two. I hold a PhD in Information Systems from University of Cape Town, where my research focus was in the Policies and Economics of Information Systems, areas that I have vastly published on.

CG: As a Young Person What Did the Appointment Mean to You?

KO: Far from being mere beneficiaries of the 2030 Agenda, young people must be active architects in the frameworks and processes that support the global growth agenda. This must happen irrespective of the sector. We must claim our rightful positions!

I am deeply honoured by the confidence the Government placed in me by appointing me to be the Chairman of the University of Embu Council. Previously, I had served in boards of the public sector for close to 10 years. I had been slowly cutting down on my engagements in the public sector, so that I focus on private sector developments. I didn’t know about this appointment until it was official. It was a surreal moment. I hadn’t imagined I would Chair a Board of a State Corporation at 38.

The expectations are high and the big question is do you reject an offer by the State to serve the people? There was so much to reflect on this front but I have been lucky. I work with a great and talented team of men and women. They have been very supportive. I am on course. It’s been a great opportunity to return back to the society that has supported me in many things over many years. I would want to at least positively influence a few things in the sector and I am excited things are panning out in a promising manner.

Innovation is the engine of our institutional development development.We encourage novelty on this front.

dr.kennedy okongó

CG: What is Unique About UoEm?

KO: We are unique on many facets. Key of course are our Core Values and the Motto. At the University of Embu, we embrace accountability in all our engagements. For us, innovation is the engine for our institutional development. We encourage novelty on this front. We do have a highly qualified staff base, very talented and the staff embrace work ethics in provision of services. Key for us is that we link what we do with customer needs and expectations – future or current.

We truly acknowledge the unity of purpose as an imperative ingredient in our work environment. We do believe “Knowledge Transforms”, and so we tap into the growing stock of global knowledge, adapt it to local needs, and transform it into products and services that are valued by the markets around us.

CG: What Strides Has UoEm Made Since Inception?

KO: Firstly, this institution a long history. It started as Embu Agricultural Staff Training College in 1947. The training college was later renamed Embu Institute of Agriculture in 1968. In 1990, it was upgraded to Embu Agricultural Staff Training College. The mandate was to develop and implement short management and technical courses, and offer research and consultancy services to enhance performance in the agricultural sector. In June 2011, His Excellency President Mwai Kibaki converted it to Embu University College, a constituent college of University of Nairobi, through a Legal Notice No. 65.

Five (5) years later, on a Friday, 7th October, 2016 a historic event happened.  This day marked the transition of the Embu University College from a Constituent College of University of Nairobi to a fully- fledged University where The University of Embu was birthed and formally awarded a Charter by H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In an endeavour towards effective delivery of university mandate, we are currently implementing our 10-year strategic plan (2018-2028). This plan has a clear focus with defined priorities to drive this University into some desired future. This has been achieved some milestones – in terms of infrastructure development, human capital recruitment, collaborations and strategic partnerships. The student population has consistently grown from nothing some 9 years ago to current 9000 students.

Dr.Kennedy Okongó speaks at a dinner hosted by the UoEm to celebrate a stellar performance after it was ranked tops in the Performance Management evaluation for the 2019/20 financial year. PHOTO: University of Embu.

From the perception surveys, we have become a university of choice. A growing number of prospective students choose us as a first option during placement by Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS). We have tried to accommodate all but are forced to disappoint a few due to limited placement options in certain competitive programmes. Though we have continually expanded our programmes – at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and also fostered collaborative partnerships with institutions and organisations of similar aspirations. Constantly we have also evaluated internal and external clients’ feedback which we have formed a basis of continuous improvement over years.

A growing number of prospective students choose us as fisrt option during placement by the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS).

dr.kennedy okongó

When the pandemic happened, we quickly adjusted, thanks to our understanding body of staff. We embraced the new approaches to learning and have put in place policies and guidelines around open and distance learning as quality is key for us at the University of Embu. In fact, you must have read, heard or been told that we have consistently remained at ‘excellent score’ in performance contracting since financial year 2014/15. That is 7 years of clear excellent performance. It’s not a surprise, in the very recent ranking by State Department for Public Service, the University was ranked the best performing state corporation out of 200++ state agencies in the 2019/2020 cycle.

The current focus of the Council and the management is to transform the University of Embu to a world class institution of higher education. This will enable us play a leading role in the global arena of higher education, training, research and support. Towards this end, we have identified key areas upon which to build this success legacy. I am happy with these many strides since the college was founded, truly excited about the future and being part of that future.

CG: In What Ways Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected the UoEm?

KO: True to those words, the unprecedented pandemic has shaken the foundation of the University ecosystem. Prior, the faculty and students have operated in close proximity but the COVID-19 has changed the structure and even the business models that have sustained the University of Embu and other local Universities over years have been re-configured.

Following the Presidential directives and many other public health protocols, we have re-structured a lot of our operations to align with the new normal. We have moved certain operations fully to virtual platforms and some to a mix of the two or otherwise called a hybrid way of doing things. We were able to complete 2020/21 academic year through online teaching. We shifted teaching to online platforms and we continue to strictly implement recommended public health measures to date. Majority of Council and Management meetings are conducted virtually, except where necessary.

Although far from unique, the pandemic has brought unprecedented difficulties for all stakeholders, and myriad challenges remain across admissions, course delivery, and student and staff wellbeing. As a Council and Management, we have been immensely challenged. As a Council, we were appointed at a unique time but we consider it a unique opportunity to serve. We have focussed on re-positioning the University of Embu as a ‘University of the Future’. We are working as a together as a team and exploring everything we can to ensure we are on top of these disruptions.

Dr.Kennedy Okongó (left) with the UoEm Vice Chancellor Prof. Daniel Njiru (centre) and the Chancellor Prof. Musili Wambua. PHOTO: University of Embu.

CG: How is the UoEm Leveraging COVID-19 for Its Competitive Edge?

KO: Indeed, COVID-19 pandemic has created not only unprecedented challenges but also opportunities for universities.  Academics are looking to peers as well as trusted sources to help curate high-quality online learning tools. This is one opportunity for the higher education sector to unite, forge connections across the country, across the region and the world, and truly share what works in a global way. I don’t think, prior to this crisis, universities have been able to do this, and we will have missed a big opportunity if we don’t try to do that now.

Leaders in academia have been charged with restructuring systems, ensuring academics remains quality while operating with significantly diminished financial and human resources. These are challenges but I choose to look at them as opportunities to lead in innovative ways.

I am confident that we will be a resilient sector post COVID-19-if it ever goes and I believe it shall-and the University of Embu will learn from this experience.

dr.kennedy okongó

As leaders, we acknowledge that, in this moment, we are charged with responsibility for maintaining the continued operations, demonstrating care for those under our charge, and planning for future, all while working in and with on-going uncertainty. However, we do acknowledge no single solution can address the complexity of the issues faced around COVID-19. We are called upon to confront and tackle, challenges that include hiring freezes, extending promotion timelines, professional learning such as use of new pedagogical technologies – hybrid and hy-flex models of instruction. While all these are critical, the pandemic is also new and so these are not the kinds of issues that are well-addressed on the fly and in the absence of relevant data. Thus, an opportunity to model additional scenarios, given right data on COVID-19.

As a sector, I believe we’ll get through this stronger. When you go through a big national crisis or are hit by a global crisis on your local setting like this, you come out stronger because you’ve not only been fighting together, but also working together. I am confident that we will be a resilient sector post COVID-19 – if it ever goes and I believe it shall – and the University of Embu will learn from this experience.

CG: The COVID-19 Has Magnified the Need for Academia to Generate Solutions to Emerging Challenges in The Country. How is the Academia Fairing on this Front with Respect to the Pandemic?

KO: Firstly, this is an unprecedented public health crisis. It has exposed both the best and the worst of us as a sector. It has understandably caught us off guard and there are mixed signals and conflicting advice from different levels of academia, some have left stakeholders feeling forsaken.

However, at this precarious moment, when the proliferation of information, disinformation and misinformation from a variety of sources contributes to the spread of panic, universities and the scientific community are largely emerging as the best and most reliable sources of information that can address the pandemic and its terrible economic, political and public health consequences. Paradoxically, this pandemic has also been a game changer in terms of the public perception of universities which have been under attack in some parts of the world. Public universities have been discredited by both fake news and undermined by severe budget cuts – the current crisis now underscores the importance of research institutes for the future of a country doing catch up like ours and the world at large to face this and future threats.

At the same time, universities have excelled in many ways. University research has been critical to developing vaccines in extraordinary timeframes, saving millions of lives under threat. University graduates have been heroes of the pandemic response. They have offered their expertise on statistical, scientific and medical spaces. And beyond these short-term horizons, the key trends that were posing existential questions for university leaders pre-COVID are still with us. These have accelerated digital transformation that has characterized the global economy. 

University research has been critical in developing vaccines in extraordinary time frames, saving millions of lives under threat.

Dr.kennedy okongó

So as vaccine roll out gets scaled up, the critical question for leaders in the sector is how do we remain as lead advisors in the societies or bounce back stronger than before? I would add that higher education institutions have a duty to continue their activities, despite the restrictions that the current situation imposes. They represent a huge social investment that cannot be overlooked. Now, more than ever, they must make it clear that this long-term investment is a fundamental one for a better future. Sadly, it’s only in the future that we will only know if the best decisions were made.

Dr.Kennedy Okongó (extreme left) at a graduation procession, during the UoEm graduation in 2020.

CG: How Is the University Curriculum Responsive to the Needs of Kenya’s Labour Market and Economic Growth?

KO: Today’s universities are quite different from universities a couple of decades ago. The labor market is increasingly becoming more competitive and there is an increasing emphasis on instant results. I am persuaded to believe that for a university to stand the test of the current and the future labour markets, there is need for a greater emphasis on collaboration with industry and industry practitioners like you.

I find that there is a skills mismatch that is more of a problem than over-churning of graduates. I do not mean that higher education should be geared to providing highly specific skills that are currently needed by the industry. I mean general education and skills are equally valuable because they enable workers to respond to shocks in the economy, for instance, those that require sectoral change and advances in technology, and it would be essential that the current university curriculum – just as basic education curriculum – as being retweaked and continuously adjusted is understood in that context.

CG: What Are the Key Priority Areas for the UoEm Council?

KO: It is worrying that funding for the public universities is marginally down. Kenya has affected these, partly in response to a financial crunch facing the country. As a Council, we remain focused on mobilising resources to realize and keep on course with the University’s mandate of producing highly qualified professionals to participate in socio-economic advancement of the nation. This we do by promoting innovation, social equity and cohesiveness.

We are also keen to concentrate on our role of providing oversight, and ensuring compliance with good governance practices. We believe, there is need to continue enhancing the university’s standing as a place where focus on research and mentoring of young generation of leaders is central to what we do. I have confidence that together, with the Management, Staff, Students, Donors and the Community, we are on course.

CG: What Kind of Expertise Would You Be Relying on to Deliver the UoEm Vision?

KO: Our focus at the University of Embu is to be a dynamic epicentre of excellence in training and research. I am fortunate to be the Chairman of a Council that is comprised of great men and women, of diverse skill sets, diverse academic persuasions, diverse competencies, varied years of practical and professional experience in the higher education and adjacent sectors, and key for me is that each is ready to get down to work to deliver this University to the next level.

The competencies are of equal importance and I owe each and every member of the Council, including the Vice Chancellor, Professor Daniel Mugendi, an enormous debt of gratitude for the support so far.

CG: What Does the Future Hold for UoEm?

KO: We continue to work side by side with our stakeholders. We continue to impart key sets of skills and knowledge to our students to position them to succeed in the competitive global market. So, ours remains around fulfilling our mission with the future likely scenario in mind.

We may not, with exactness and precision, be able to predict the future, but we hold the key to ensuring our products are resilient and find fulfillment in the current and future market.

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