FUTURE AT STAKE

ALEX AWITI: Higher education reform must be driven by dialogue

In Summary
  • Continued dysfunction in higher education imperils our collective future
  • Our universities must be lean and fit for purpose

That higher education needs urgent and radical reform is not in doubt. Governance and management structures in higher education are sclerotic. These structures are not fit for the purpose for which universities exist – knowledge generation through teaching, learning, research and service.

As someone who has led the charter process for a university, I understand that we must imagine governance and management reform within the strictures of laws and regulations. I also understand that there is a new crop of progressive higher education leaders who are deeply frustrated with the status quo.

A new crop of academic leaders is determined to re-imagine the university in the true spirit of its cardinal purpose. But there are also the custodians of law and regulation whose job, understandably, is to demand due process.

Due process that inheres at once to the provisions of the Universities Act 2012, university regulations and standards as provided by the Commission for University Education, provisions of charter and the statutes.

The far-reaching reorganisation approved by Nairobi’s university council has sparked debate, protest and action by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Prof George Magoha, who termed the changes illegal. But vice chancellor Stephen Kiama believes the University of Nairobi must reform or die. That is ominous.

Prof Kiama proposes to close 24 of the 35 constituent colleges, abolish five offices of deputy vice chancellors create two associate vice chancellors and 11 executive deans to head faculty.

At present our universities are bloated, faculty are overworked, research and intellectual productivity are dismal, and the majority of our graduates are ill-prepared for work or further education.

The law envisages deputy vice chancellors and principals of constituent colleges. And I might guess that both the charter and the statutes of public universities make provisions that are consistent with the Universities Act. This is the point of discussion.

Let’s set aside the legality of Prof Kiama’s announcement. The question must be how do we unshackle universities and allow academic leaders to make the decisions they need to make to fulfil the mission of the academy?

We certainly must not put form before function. And yes, any reform or reorganisation in higher education governance and management must be evidence-based and tempered with the age-old question; what is working and what does not work?

At present our universities are bloated, faculty are overworked, research and intellectual productivity are dismal, and the majority of our graduates are ill-prepared for work or further education.

Continued dysfunction in higher education imperils our collective future. Our universities must be lean and fit for purpose. We must not lumber universities with structures just because that is what the law provides.

It is time for vice chancellors and their councils, in conversation with CUE and the Ministry of Education, to determine what we need to achieve excellence in teaching, learning and research.

This is not time for rancour and grandstanding on legality or structure. It is time to reason together. If the laws and regulations impede our path to excellence we must amend them in accordance with the law.

I believe that Education CS Prof Magoha and the University of Nairobi VC have the best intentions. But we must find a common path.

Vice Provost at Aga Khan University. The views expressed are the writer’s