Better days lie ahead as optimists say, but for public universities those moments are in the past. The two decades of this century have seen gross neglect, thanks to ‘massification’ of university education.
In the past, 1970s graduation schedules and semester dates were predictable. Admission dates for freshers were predictable. Work boycotts among the teaching cadres was alien. There was respect for scholarship.
A governmental system facilitated universities to deliver their mandates. Public universities were fewer then. Demand was not cutthroat. The University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University College admitted top achievers to advance quality. Then Kenyatta University, Moi University and Egerton arrived during the last decade of the Nyayo regime. But the mass enrolment came during the Mwai Kibaki years.
Colleges and accountancy institutes acquired new statuses as chartered public universities. Today, 33 public universities, with a combined admission of about 500,000, are begging government for capitation. Funding comes in drips that cannot sustain quality education.
Aspects of universities suffer because the funding is low, coming from a government that reports low revenue collection. This is the challenge Education CS Amina Mohamed should confront.
Yes, those who would have missed places in universities found oom, but the opportunities for mass admissions came with compromised quality. The last 12 months have exposed the turbulence of mass university education.
Four strikes in one academic year, with the latest now in the third month, reflects badly on how the government is mishandling university education.
The ranks of the hungry are soaring. The disenchanted are hungry people with a cause. There is a right to education for harassed students, and a living wage for professors. Must these people beg for better pay when the Labour Act addresses these issues?
Students are wasting away across party and ethnicity divides. The students have dissolved into the anonymous crowds in city streets. The young minds are probably doing the wrong things at the wrong times.
In one hostel in Rongo the 100 students in residence have dwindled to seven. The rest disappeared after waiting for too long for their university to give direction. Initially, the students did not expect the lecturers to picket for this long. The students would go away for a few days and return to their residence. They were hoping classes would resume soon. But by the end of March, the numbers were dwindling.
By the end of last month, there were 15 students. Now only a few mischievous ones are around, chatting and playing loud music, with regular binge breaks. These are second-year students who stayed away from the university from April 2016 to January 2017. Theyare five semesters behind their graduation schedule.
Meanwhile, poor parents are paying the heavy bill — tuition, accommodation and maintenance — for students on the streets. Universities are also incurring heavy costs. The 500,000 students have 500,000 mothers, 500,000 fathers, and more than two million siblings, relatives, and friends. These taxpaying adults are concerned about the collapse of public university education.
Public sector employees have children, relatives, and friends who do not understand why a stable system can stall for three months. Then there are suppliers and others who make a living through the university system. The collapse of the public university system has robbed them of livelihoods.
Together, there are about six million people who may probably know there can be another Kenya, where public institutions work. They may know there can be leaders who are sensitive to the cries of the angry and the hungry. These issues are more urgent than the superfluous arguments about 2022, hustlers, royals, and floundering presidential ambitions. Leadership is required to resolve stalemate in public universities.
Okech is a communications consultant and university lecturer