The University of Nairobi, commonly known as UoN, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It has risen from a technical college, teaching arts and crafts to a university whose seeds have travelled the whole world and is today celebrated as one of the leading African universities. The status that UoN enjoys today in the world of scholarship is a consequence of several changes throughout its lifetime.

The story of UoN is captured in a book published recently, Fountain of Knowledge, History of the University of Nairobi, 1952-2020: From a Technical College to a World-Class University (Anyange Press, 2021) by Bethwell Ogot and Madara Ogot.

Bethwell Ogot should know the history of UoN probably better than any other Kenyan living today. For he is a historian who has specialised on Kenya, and was at the institution when it became a university, and was its first Deputy Vice-Chancellor between 1970 and 1973. Madara Ogot has taught and been an administrator at UoN for several years now.

UoN is a child of the colonial British thinking about education in Africa. As Ogot records, its roots came from the Asquith Commission. This commission had been established in 1943 by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, “… to consider the principles which should guide the promotion of higher education… and the development of universities in the colonies.”

The university colleges – because they awarded the London University degrees – that would be founded due to this commission were known as the ‘Asquith Colleges.’ Among them were the University College Ibadan, in Nigeria; University College of the Gold Coast at Legon, in Ghana; and Makerere University College. As Ogot and Ogot write: “The Royal Technical College in Nairobi joined the Asquith University League.”

Initially started as the Royal Technical College in 1956, it was intended to, according to Ogot and Ogot, “… provide at first, fulltime and part-time instruction in practical trade skills. It would then offer courses leading to the Higher National Certificate and eventually would prepare matriculated students of all races for full-time study towards university degrees in engineering and technology, subjects which, at the time, Makerere University College in Kampala was not providing.” Thus, UoN would begin life on its own but affiliated to the only regional institution of higher learning and the British mother institutions.

The Royal Technical College, properly known as “The Royal Technical College of East Africa”, had incorporated what was then the Gandhi Memorial Academy – a planned separate institution that had already raised a considerable sum of money.

Royal College Nairobi

Ogot and Ogot note that the Gandhi Memorial Academy Council not only agreed to merge with the Royal Technical College but it also donated 200 thousand and 100 thousand British pounds for the construction of the college’s buildings, and as endowment, respectively. The GMA Council also established the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi Trust, with a donation of 100 thousand British Pounds. The RTCEA would also benefit from other donors including the US government and teaching staff from Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA.

The RTCEA would begin teaching in March 1956, admitting students to study in the following departments: Architecture; Arts – English (Literature), Geography, History, Mathematics, French; Commerce; Domestic Science; Engineering – Mechanical and Electrical; Science – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, and Mathematics.

The students who completed their studies would get “British qualifications in technical, commercial, and professional bodies and associations, even in the Department of Arts, irrespective of whether these qualifications were relevant in Africa. And so, the debate on the relevance of university of education has really been around since the arrival of the diploma and degree programs on these shores.

The RTCEA would later become the Royal College Nairobi in June 1961. The Act establishing the Royal College would practically make it at par with Makerere University College since it established a “special relationship with the University of London”, enabling its students in Arts, Science and engineering to earn the degrees of the University of London.

Because these were times of rapid changes – political, economic, social, cultural and even academic – in East Africa, it was inevitable that the Royal College Nairobi would become a bigger and newer institution as soon as Kenya gained independence. Indeed, in 1963, the University of East Africa would be established.

The UEA was launched in Nairobi, with Makerere and Dar es Salaam (which had been set-up in 1961 as a constituent college of Makerere) as its constituents. Naturally the UEA was more of an ideal than a practical establishment. The political trajectories of the Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda were inevitably going to influence education policies in each country.

The demand for higher education by Africans and the need to train locals to take over from departing colonial officers and experts would exert pressure on the new nation-states to expand postsecondary education. The UEA, would, thus, only last till 1970, when Makerere, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi would become independent universities.

What Ogot and Ogot do in Fountain of Knowledge, History of the University of Nairobi, 1952-2020 is to provoke the reader into asking questions about the past, present and future of higher education, especially university schooling. For instance, at inception, UoN lacked adequate staff to teach its courses. It barely had qualified Africans who could teach. The few who were available chose government and corporate jobs. Has that situation really changed over the past 50 years? How will it look in the next 10 years when the ‘inaugural generation’ of the 1970s fully retires?

University’s academic programmes

How about the governance of the university? Ogot and Ogot show that probably the UoN started on the wrong footing when a few individuals in government influenced the appointment of its first vice-chancellor, who barely had any teaching and administrative experience. The appointment was more political than meritocratic. It shouldn’t surprise that to date, many universities in Kenya struggle with this legacy, with some not having a substantive council or senior university administrators because of political interests in those offices.

On the university’s academic programmes, Ogot and Ogot provoke the reader to think more critically about the relationship between the various branches of knowledge. They cite the words of Sir David Lindsay-Kerr, then Master of Baliol College, Oxford, and Chairman of the Council of Overseas Colleges of Arts, Science and Technology, who on the occasion of the opening of the RTCEA advised against any facile tendencies to separate the Arts, Sciences and Technology from each other.

He said: “There must be a positive policy, aimed at bringing together, in the same system, all three traditions … .” He emphasized that “… Arts, Science and Technology can no longer afford to dwell apart,” in the manner they had been going their separate ways in the British system.