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At a four-day conference in Toronto organised by the Society for the Advancement of Science in Africa (SASA), the room was packed with professors, graduate students and researchers from different parts of North America. Yet, I could not help notice that something was amiss. Dozens of African students and academics had not been able to join us, because they could not get visas to travel to Canada.
The situation was especially disappointing for the students because, as one professor pointed out to me, they would have benefited the most from the conference. The event was meant to showcase African universities with the aim of making science careers more attractive to the continent’s young people.
This is sorely needed — science education is still struggling in many African countries, including Kenya, where less than 20 per cent of students are enrolled in science programmes, according to Eusebius Mukhwana, a deputy commission secretary at the Commission for University Education in Kenya.
In Toronto, Mukhwana gave a presentation which indicated that not enough students are studying disciplines with relevance to Kenya’s economy, including science and technology.
“This leads to a situation where there is a disconnect between what the economy is looking for and what universities are producing,” said Mukhwana.
So why aren’t more students flocking to the sciences? Mukhwana blames a lack of opportunity in post-secondary education. There are only three medical schools in Kenya and five or six engineering schools, and even though they receive many applications the spaces are just not there, according to Mukhwana.
I wondered what Kenya’s students thought about this, so I asked Patrick Mbullo, who earned his Bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Maseno University and is now studying at York University in Toronto.
Mbullo told me that students at public universities are allocated courses by an admissions board based on their stated preferences and performance in school. Therefore, students’ choices of subject and focus are not entirely their own.  Because there are limited spaces, many who would like to pursue science programmes are allocated to different areas, Mbullo explains.

There is a disconnect between what the economy is looking for and what universities are producing.

Eusebius Mukhwana, Commission for University Education in Kenya

Science programmes are also more costly to the universities, which may explain why there are fewer spots. “For arts and social science subjects, basically you don’t need laboratories and you don’t need a lot of equipment in terms of course work,” said Mbullo.
Ken Simiyu, a Kenyan who works with Grand Challenges Canada, which supports global health projects, added that not many students excel in science and mathematics in secondary school because of a lack of qualified teachers in these areas.
The only option for many African students wanting to study science is to go abroad, but this is also difficult. Costs, language skills and, as seen in Toronto, visa issues can raise insurmountable barriers to such plans.
But there is growing recognition of these barriers, and scientists in and outside Africa are trying to break them down. Next year’s SASA conference will be held in Kenya, which, the organisers hope, will make it easier for African students to attend.