POSITIVE IMPACT

How I will change UoN — VC Kiama

Scholars should help in nation-building so the public can get value from resources invested in universities, he says

In Summary

• Varsity boss plans cost-cutting measures to make it more efficient and accountable

• He says there is a lot of duplication that if addressed will reduce administration costs

University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor Stephen Kiama during an Interview. June 10, 2020.
University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor Stephen Kiama during an Interview. June 10, 2020.
Image: CHARLENE MALWA

The University of Nairobi was mired in controversy earlier this year after its council chose Prof Stephen Kiama to take the mantle.

Education CS George Magoha dissolved the council and revoked the appointment, and Kiama went to court.

He rode the storm to retain his seat. The Star caught up with him to discuss the controversy and his vision for the university.

 

The Star: Your appointment was met with backlash and opposition from the executive and undertones linked it to the Deputy President. Have you ever met him?

Prof Kiama: No, I have not met him. I have no relationship with the number two and I'm not a political project. I was the chairman of the department [of veterinary anatomy and physiology] and associate dean of the faculty. Since 2003, I have been on administration of this university, a member of the senate since 2003.

I finished that, moved to director, Wangari Maathai Institute, then moved to be the principal of the college, then became deputy vice chancellor in charge of human resource and administration and acting DVC, finance planning and development, and then I went for interviews and I emerged top and was appointed as vice chancellor of the university.

I was shortlisted and it was in the public domain but nobody said anything until my appointment. The minute you’ve been shortlisted it means you have what it takes to take up the position. Any of those shortlisted could rise to be top candidate.  

 

As you begin the journey, what do you plan to do for the University of Nairobi?

The first thing I’d love to ensure is the university brings a positive impact to the Kenyan community. Universities run using public resources and they must feel that it is bringing value back to them. This will be attained by making sure the scholars are given opportunity to contribute to the agenda of the nation without interference.

As a country we have been conditioned to certain things, but for a country to grow, there must be that person who is bringing new ideas, new agendas to the table because everybody wants things to remain as they are, the comfort zones. And a country does not invest in university education for students to just get degrees, it has some value addition purpose. And the University of Nairobi can be that institution offering the direction, solutions, innovations and agendas for the community.

 
 

We also have to look at governance of the university. This may involve removal of any structures that had been created that are bringing duplication and overlaps and fine-tune that purpose to serve why the university was set.

So we have to look at all the faculties, institutes and departments, what they need and don’t and the value proposition they bring to the table.

There could be things that were created and had value 30 years ago but now it has changed. We have to look at the institution we have and reflect on how we want to make it more efficient, more accountability.

This sounds like cost-cutting measures, which will rattle the academic unions. How do you plan to deal with that?

 

You involve them. It is important. When you are coming up with people’s issues, whether financial or governance, then you have to involve them. And we have already put a team to look into these matters, issues of promotion, to iron out the debate on how promotions should be handled.

I have also set up another committee to reflect on the issue of sustainability of programmes. There were institutes that were set and said this programme is the best in the country, we cannot do without it, people train in this area. But they have been receiving two students, so we have to look back and consider, could it be that we were advised wrong? Then we make decisions whether to close it or restructure.

Third in my priority list is to ensure the university has an efficient and effective data management system. We cannot make proper decisions without data. We have to look into the issue of data and see how many publications are we doing? How can we improve these publications? Which areas do they focus on and have an edge? We want to have a command in our strong areas so we can inform policy briefs, government, counties and job markets.

Regarding international students, how many are we enrolling, why are we getting that number, and which students are they? With proper data, there will be proper facilitation, proper accommodation and security, and it helps the university market and put focus with indicators provided by the data.

I also have to address the issue of finance. At some point, we only had the University of Nairobi, then it grew gradually. Now we are talking about over 30 universities, but if you look at the finances, it has not been growing in equal measure.

University of Nairobi with its college structure is, therefore, badly affected. In each of the colleges, we have overheads. As a result, it requires a lot of money to manage. The university has done well in introducing the fee-paying students various activities, but it is not able to keep the pace. When the funding is unequal and now that funding is based on the number of students and the programmes they take (differentiated unit cost), it creates irrationality and this needs to be addressed.

The other issue is the curriculum. We are doing a comprehensive audit. We have had many programmes, some admit as many as 2,000 students and others take in two students. We have to see which ones we will close. Someone will obviously argue some programmes being collapsed are important, but in this era, somebody else has to do it because public resources cannot be invested in such business. You want to invest resources where you can see results.

Some programmes have trouble with outdated curriculums and equipment. Does that concern you?

Absolutely. This a very critical area and one that needs to be looked at. Curriculums are supposed to be reviewed each five years.

Has this been happening?

Yes, it has. However, to what extent to ensure students are now fit for purpose, that is where the problem is. You can review but if you are not keen to ensure the material you bring on board is not fit to cut the student to the job market needs, then it is not important.

It is the issue of the teachers and faculties, to what extend they are growing with the change in environment. If you are not interacting with the market, then you can only put in material according to your understanding, you will continue using the yellow notes. The work of the faculties is to ensure the student is fit for the purpose of tomorrow, not yesterday.

What is the impact?

There is only one way to find that out. Look at the performance of the institution and grades, whether there is improvement in academic performance. And the logical way to measure that is grading whether the number of students sitting supplementary exams has reduced or gone up, and you realise it is going up.

Why is that so?

Because students are not connecting to what is being taught. We need to start working with the industry a lot more. Not necessarily with the regulatory bodies, because of their rigidity. Maybe they moderate so that the society moves like an evolution verses a revolution, but in some things, you need have complete revolution. Take, for example, companies like Nokia. I loved their devices, but what happened when they remained rigid to change? You go down.

And what does this mean to lecturers who are rigid to changes?

Eventually, it puts their jobs at risk. Because universities across the world require their faculties and faculty members to remain relevant to the times. The students we receive today cannot be trained like those of yesterday. So the minute you begin becoming irrelevant, then you need to start looking for your way out. Obviously, the university will continue to establish systems on how you exit.

Education CS George Magoha has on various occasions said universities are autonomous and ought to generate their own revenues. How practical do you find this?

It will not be strategic for the country. The country has invested to establish this public institutions and has an interest that the institution offers success to those going through it. The dangers of universities funding themselves is that they could settle for programmes they spend less in training and reap more. Costly programmes like dentistry, medicine and veterinary will be abandoned.

Why is it so hard for universities to turn all the brains, knowledge and assets they house into profit-making ventures?

To turn around an institution could entail deep changes. For example, if I try to close some programmes so I can study its books. The people we have employed here are employed through government, the council that employs them is put there by government, and their pay comes from government. This doesn’t have room for that, they are public servants.

Second, the fees we charge are far below the market rates. The fee is set at Sh16,000 and we are not allowed to increase it.

So what could the government do to turn the issue around?

The government should come up with a better module for funding students. It should give more leeway for universities to make the decisions they have to make. There are so many regulations as to how things ought to be done. In the University Act, for example, the institutions are expected to develop different pay scales for different courses, but that is yet to happen because we are linked with SRC.

What about university reforms?

Yes, I do support the reforms. Universities are engines of development and to ensure no county issues have been left behind, the law required each county to have a university. But we have not done it that way. We ended up with one county with so many institutions. Those same institutions are duplicating the same courses, meaning there is no complete thought on what the Kenyan people wanted.

Take Nairobi, for example; we have the Multimedia University, Cooperative University, Technical University of Kenya, University of Nairobi and JKUAT, and they teach almost the same things. So it is possible to begin thinking if it is agriculture, one institution takes it as a key focus. This will eliminate duplication and will reduce administration costs. It will also help collaborate scholars. However, I have attended forums where university reform is mentioned and people make a lot of noise.



And where can we get the common ground, if the reforms are to be realised?

It will be important for the government to engage stakeholders. In some areas, the institutions that grew to universities were community technical institutions. The community there set the land, pooled resources and some places they even gave free labour to lay the foundation and welcomed government when it converted the institution to a university. You cannot just turn around now and transform it, without again engaging the same community on how they will get the same value.

Each year, universities write hundreds of research projects but the impact of the projects on the community is arguably low. How do we bring the two together?

It all comes down to what is the priority of the research papers. In most cases, it is individual gain opposed to solving societal needs. For example, some take PhDs because it is good for their promotion, or they just like academics. We have a lot of those people in universities. It is not about any national agenda but their own.

Second, another category doing research are those financed by donors. The donors use the PhDs to gather information through the students and thus does not help the immediate community.

The country is suffering from a low number of PhD scholars, affecting the academic staff in universities. How can we correct this?

The way to ensure that is to ensure there is enough funding for research and provide scholarship for research. The National Research Fund is expected to fund research in various thematic areas so that students can be nurtured. If they asked me, the support should be offered to research programmes through professors and they should be required to also include the PhD supervision so the person is nurtured in an academic environment.

But when someone is funded independently, they can fail to finish because of weak accountability mechanisms. Funding thematic areas will enable the country to identify problems and give money to find the solutions, thus putting research in tandem with the community needs.

Do you have any political ambitions? Probably after exiting this office, is it something that has crossed your mind?

No, I actually don’t have any political ambitions. My whole life has always been academia. I come from Nyeri, went to primary school there, went to secondary school in Kenyatta, went for A level in Nakuru High and then proceeded to the university, and when I finished in 1990, June, I was hired in September as an assistant lecturer. I don’t know any other life. I have taken some responsibilities in church, school boards and other community programmes, but nothing beyond.

When you are not working, what do you do with the free time, as a hobby?

I like taking a walk. Listening to music. Country music, those done with Dolly Parton, Kenny Rodgers and African music like Kofi Olomide. Sometimes I also enjoy reading African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo and others.

Edited by T Jalio