If there is a problem that epitomises just how low the university system in Kenya has sunk, it undoubtedly must be the non-payment of salaries of part-time lecturers.
In some cases, lecturers have reportedly not been paid in months, if not years. It has been reported that hundreds of lecturers are owed an estimated Sh1 billion by both public and private universities in unpaid dues.
The situation has now started creating disruption. Two universities have already faced public protest over the issue. The use of part-time lecturers has become endemic in universities. It is not because of choice, but desperation.
The unbridled expansion of university education has caused a huge shortage of lecturers. It is estimated that in some universities, part-time lecturers constitute over 50 per cent of the teaching staff. This crisis has been brought about by the need to share out the few lecturers across growing numbers of universities and their campuses.
First things first. The core reason for the existence of a university is learning. Therefore, there must be students and lecturers. Students must pay fees, and lecturers must be paid to teach.
When lecturers are not paid, then one must question the priorities of a university, because it means that institution has prioritised other things above the very reason why it exists. For proper functioning of any university, payment of its lecturers is top priority.
The contradiction here is that most public and private universities are in a headlong dash for more and more real estate. They are buying
buildings in urban centres across the country for billions of shillings, setting up satellite campuses, and establishing mega blocks in their precints. They then recruit ever more students with the ever narrowing faculty. Something must give.
Further, this craze of setting up campuses all over is a losing proposition. Ask yourself, of all the top universities in the world, how many have satellite campuses? If you want to study at Harvard University in USA, you don’t go to their campus in say, San Diego. You go to Boston, where they are domiciled.
The same case applies to other premier universities. They may have campuses in their home city, but it is unlikely that they’ll be having satellites all over the country and even overseas. They expand their campuses where they are domiciled. Indeed, these university venues are so well developed that they have created university towns, and have student populations running to tens of thousands.
Yet, local universities are scrambling to occupy any available space, however, dinghy, in all towns. What is informing this scramble?
The establishment of satellite campuses and buying up any available buildings has sucked up all the resources of public and private universities in Kenya, leaving them with no resources to run their core function — learning and research.
Worse, very few universities have a dedicated programme of developing lecturers through a doctorate programme. The university system is now operating like matatus — invest nothing in the systems but just buy a vehicle to skim off the profits.
Where is the Ministry of Education and the regulator, Commission for Higher Education (CUE) in all this? They have remained mum as the crisis over payment of part-time lecturers has raged. They should have seized this opportunity to ask some searching question.
Where do we go from here? Put a moratorium on expansion. The expansion craze is the foundation of all crisis in universities. Take a leaf from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) that has frozen all new bank licences. This has given it time to clean up the rot that has, apparently, been lying latent in that sector and only exploded when banks started folding.
Deal with the issue of non-payment of dues for the part-time lecturers. CUE cannot pretend that nothing is going on.
They should do a survey as part of their currently ongoing inspection of facilities and curriculum. Any university that has arrears of salaries for lecturers, — whether part-time of otherwise — must explain why, because this is likely to be symptomatic of a much larger systemic problem that requires a radical overhaul of the institution.
Among the raft of measures that CUE must demand from those universities are programmes of clearing these arrears because it is critical to the functioning of these universities. Enact regulations that determine when and where a university can expand.
It’s strange that CUE has never questioned the obvious mismatch between the rapidly expanding university system, and the long time it takes to train a doctorate student and develop them into a lecturer.
With the ongoing battle for student numbers, the situation will get worse unless CUE acts. The long term competitiveness of the Kenyan economy is at risk, as its universities churn out half-baked graduates who cannot compete locally, let along internationally.
This at a time when countries like Germany have raised the academic bar for those who would like to lead their institutions- both public and private- to a minimum of a PHD. At this rate, we will never catch up, all rhetoric notwithstanding.
Gathu Kaara can be reached at [email protected]