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February 20, 2019

We must halt the decline of our universities

University of Nairobi.
University of Nairobi.

The audit report on quality of university education by the CUE was a sobering indictment. The problems are grave and range from missing grades to the quality of faculty staff to widespread academic fraud.

The findings of the Commission for University Education report, which was released early this year, demand that bold actions must be taken to restore the credibility of Kenya’s universities. This is especially critical in the age of a competitive knowledge-based global economy. Our true and most dependable resource is the quality of our human capital. We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our youth.

The time to act to restore confidence in public universities and secure the future of our country is now. Last week Dr Fred Matiang’i, Education CS, urged stakeholders to re-examine how public universities are run. According to Matiang’i, a lot of “bad things” are happening in our universities and the government could no longer “live with the kind of wastage and corruption that thrives in our universities”.

Matiang’i has signalled a raft of reforms. These include tightening financial management. For example, the Universities Funding Board will manage financial disbursements. Moreover, all tuition revenue from parallel programmes will be remitted to the National Treasury. In 2015, the Treasury CS revealed that public universities accounted for the largest share of “missing billions” of internally generated funds.

Public universities have not been transparent about their staffing levels. A recent audit revealed that all 31 public universities were not honest about the number of employees they have, inflating the figures by 2,513. In his recommendation for reform, Matiang’i wants all support staff to be hired on contracts as opposed to the current terms, which are permanent appointments.

Furthermore, Matiang’i recommends that junior academic staff, tutorial fellows and lecturers should be hired on short-contract basis. Only senior lecturers and the professoriate will be hired on permanent, pensionable terms. As one would expect, this will be resisted by the Universities’ Academic Staff Union.

The reforms proposed by Matiang’i can make a huge difference. One would hope that the Universities Funding Board does not become a painful, inscrutable new cuticle of bureaucracy, which in time becomes infected with Kenya’s most inevitable afflictions, corruption and ineptitude.

The transition of terms of employment from permanent to fleeting contracts must be managed with sensitivity. Untidy contracts for junior faculty could dry out the supply of a dynamic and motivated reservoir of future professors. We must be clear about the criteria for promotion to the ranks of senior lecturer — the golden gate into permanency. Matiang’i must tread carefully here.

That Matiang’i’s reforms are well meaning is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether these reforms can be executed conscientiously. The future is summoning all of us to do the right thing by our children. Universities cannot be havens for corruption and fraud. Universities must the pillars of rectitude and moral clarity.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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