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Dons’ shortage, tribalism blotting varsity education

Public institutions of higher learning in Kenya are inundated with challenges that incapacitate them from realising core mandate of delivering quality education and research. People Daily’s JAMES MOMANYI caught up with Dr Charles Mukwaya, the secretary general  of Kenya Universities Staff Union, who shed light on the pressing issues.

Question: When university vice chancellors met Education Cabinet secretary recently, they lamented that shortage of lecturers is negatively affecting learning at most institutions of higher learning. How critical is the problem and what’s the solution?
Answer: Shortage of trained academic staff is a big problem in our universities. Most universities lack qualified lecturers to handle some courses, especially post-graduate programmes. They rely on part-time lecturers who often moonlight in many universities to make ends meet.
Again, some of our universities do not have fully qualified professors and have to depend on the few available associate professors. Remember also the number of universities has increased, making the few professors available even more scarce as their services are much sought after. This, in return, affects the quality of education because the contact hours between students and lecturers are very minimal.
It is sad that the expansion of our universities has not been in tandem with the increase of trained manpower. In barely three years, the public universities have increased from eight to now 31 without reciprocal increase of trained academic staff to handle increased student population.
Q: What can be done?
A: New university colleges hardly have professors in most faculties. This is a critical problem and the government needs to support universities by increasing their budgetary allocation. This will enable the institutions’ development of staff at faculty level and through study and research scholarships.
Q: One of the main functions of a university is to generate research, especially research that can make a difference in the society. Are our local universities doing enough in this area?
A: Research is the main function of a university and our universities are not doing enough in this area. This can largely be attributed to lack of funds.
I, therefore, want to challenge our universities to shift focus from conducting the basic research that is geared towards personal academic pursuits and promotion and instead orientate surveys towards solving societal problems. For instance we want our researchers to find new diagnostic methods for diseases such as typhoid which are common amongst many Kenyans. The government should also start heavily  investing in universities and even giving them problem statements they can base their research on and come up with solutions.
For instance in Japan, the design and development of vehicles at Toyota Motor Corporation are done at the university. Why doesn’t, for example, the National Transport and Safety Authority  involve our universities in coming up with a solution on the endemic problem of traffic jams especially in Nairobi?
Q: Do you mean that the government should then involve universities when carrying out some of the development projects?
A: That should have happened long ago. It is saddening that a project like in the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), there is no functional engineering department in any of our universities that is involved. If there is no single officer from the university who has been seconded to the project, how then are we going to gain from this project in terms of skills transfer?
I am proposing to the government that when they draw plans for such projects, local universities should be involved to ensure they can continue researching on the projects for purposes of improving on a similar one in future.
Q: What is your opinion on the unending trend of universities taking over technical institutions for commercial reasons and not for reasons of enhancing academic pursuits?
A: I am totally against this trend of converting technical institutions into universities. It is absurd for the government to sit back and watch as we kill technical institutions.
In countries like Germany or Japan for one to become a professor in a technical field, he/she must pass through a technical training institute first. But, unfortunately in Kenya, we are killing these fountains that have been very useful in the past. Courses taught in these institutions are still valuable now and will still be meaningful even in the future.
Q: Tribalism and ethnicity seems to have found home in our local universities through appointment to senior positions, management issues and even admission of students.  The bug seem to have also caught up with the students as can be seen mostly during student leaders’ elections. What can you say about that?
A: The problem of tribalism and negative ethnicity is real in our universities. And it’s utterly embarrassing. Universities are supposed to be national and universal and hence the word university. It means they are supposed to accommodate diverse scholars.
That students are also encouraging the vice is even worrying? Who then is left to demonstrate national values if not the youth?
Q: Who is to blame?
A: I think we all are. But it is upon the government to act urgently and arrest this vice, which has tainted our universities. There is a policy of how recruitment to senior positions should be done and the Education ministry should enforce it. Unfortunately it’s not happening at the moment. For instance the policy says the chancellor, vice chancellor and chair of university council shouldn’t come from the same region. But this is the norm in most universities.
Education CS should not cry wolf about ethnicity in our universities when the ministry is indirectly perpetuating the vice through inaction or complicity.
Q: What is the position of the union on the simmering power struggles at the University of Nairobi?
A: I am hesitant to comment on the wrangles because I am a staff member. As a union and staff member, we don’t support either side. That said, as a union we are calling on the ministry, the University Council and Commission for University Education to move with speed and solve these wrangles in line with the rule of law.
This infighting between the two senior officers is affecting performance, the staff morale and the smooth running of the university.

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