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February 18, 2019

State messing up universities


Even after the government ceded control of public universities to their councils, Jogoo House is still meddling in the affairs of public institutions. The obsession with control has exacerbated frequent labour stalemates.

What, for instance, is the government doing negotiating salaries with the Universities Academic Staff Union? The right organ to handle labour withdrawals by lecturers is the Inter-Public Universities Councils Consultative Forum, working with the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. And, there is no need for acrimony.

The councils should be doing this on behalf of the government. But for the councils to deliver quality outcomes, government facilitation should be timely, reasonable, and pegged on annual institutional budgets.

The just-ended work stoppage in public universities disrupted semester and graduation schedules. September admissions are in jeopardy. Parents and their children are hurting. Universities are running huge losses. Related businesses lost while their clients were away for 78 days.

Worse, the government does not know how to pass the buck.

The government finds it hard to sustain 31 public universities, all waiting for capitation. The mass enrollment of government-sponsored top and C-grade students complicates matters. But the government won’t admit the strain of sustaining 600,000 students, up from 38,000 a few years ago. Falling tax revenues, and corruption, which raids public accounts in billions of shillings daily, leave a bleeding Treasury.

The government does not want to take responsibility for these frequent work boycotts. It also does not want to address the crisis of funding of public universities. But capitation deficits are mere symptoms of a bigger challenge. Reports of what needs to be done to address these challenges are with the ministry. The ministry knows it does not have to reinvent the wheel. The missing link is the will to act.

Former Education CS Fred Matiang’i and former PS Colleta Suda must have handed over these reports to CS Amina Mohamed and her team at Jogoo House. They need the will to implement: The will to respect the Universities Act 2012, which defines the mandate of university councils.

Jogoo House also needs an inter-ministerial understanding to ensure respect for labour relations, the Labour Act and collective bargain agreements. These legal instruments should be binding with specific timeframes. Professors do not have to beg when a CBA is due for implementation. The university councils, individually or collectively, do not have the capacity to resolve the crisis because the government is not respecting, in a timely and appropriate way, its financial obligations to public universities.

Universities are not the problem. The challenge is feeding public universities on rations that do not consider the growth of these institutions, their student populations, teaching courses and unique research needs. The government has not empowered the councils to run the universities on behalf of Jogoo House, as the Universities Act 2012 anticipates. Once this is addressed, universities can reclaim their logical place in national development.

Once you destroy education, you destroy a country. This is what is happening. Leaders are preoccupied with hustling and 2022 presidential ambitions, not the urgent educational needs of the youth.

University councils are the supreme governing organs of these institutions. They are mandated to oversee the management of these institutions on behalf of the government. They set broad policy guidelines and oversee their execution. They are the government’s reporting agencies. They approve budgets and monitor performance contracting.

The councils are the official employer of university staff on behalf the government. But they need enough funding to deliver quality service in public universities. Standards that would rival services at private and business-funded universities like Strathmore.

The alternative is for the government to pay market-rate fees for all its sponsored students, considering their unique course needs, then allow councils to manage the institutions in a way that protects their autonomy. Any other way subverts quality and academic freedom.

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