A proposal by the education ministry to employ university teaching staff on contract has evoked mixed reactions. Historically, universities by their very nature existed as institutions where knowledge was created and dispersed.
While this has changed, universities are still viewed as places where knowledge is still considered sacrosanct. Knowledge was viewed as sacred and is still so, to an extent that the decision-making in learning institutions is a preserve of “those who know” as opposed to the financially endowed. That is why there was optimism when Dr Fred Matiang’i, a scholar, was picked to head the Education docket.
The academic fraternity welcomed his appointment despite the fact that his predecessor, Prof Jacob Kaimenyi, who was also one of their own – having risen through academia – had hardly addressed issues related to the academic freedom and autonomy of universities.
The University Academic Staff Union (Uasu) hailed the new CS as the “right person to tackle issues bedeviling learning in universities such as frequent strikes over staff welfare.
As the academic citadels, universities are not only nurseries but catalysts of innovation, knowledge, information and ideas for the transformation of society. But his latest declaration to universities management to hire staff on contract—a move seen as a tactic to counter frequent agitation for pay perks and other welfare issues—has not only left many of his former colleagues astounded, but also angry.
Higher education operates at a time when knowledge is ever more vital to societies and economies to an extent that any innovation or discovery can bring instant fortune.
German Philosopher, Immanuel Kant considered university autonomy as the root of human dignity and the source of all morality that is required for the success of universities in delivering their roles in society. However, the route Matiang’i took has drawn criticism as stifling academic freedom and interfering with universities’ autonomy.
As long as the Education ministry and politicians continue to interfere with academic freedom, universities run the risk of losing their edge as drivers of economic growth other societal transformations.
The autonomy that universities root for in Kenya can be classified into three categories – financial, organisational and staffing. Indeed, public universities in Kenya depend on the Exchequer to fund programmes. However, the financial autonomy that universities want refers to the ability to raise funds without depending on the central government to do so.
This implies that universities can set fee guidelines as they deem fit for various programmes in order to remunerate lecturers adequately. However, the organisational autonomy refers to the ability of universities to establish sub-units such as research centres and satellite campuses.
Lastly, staffing autonomy means that universities have the power to recruit employees as per respective needs and requirements. Interestingly, these are among issues which the education CS was expected to tackle. Universities also need the autonomy to hire vice chancellors instead of leaving politicians and the Executive to have a say.
What Matiang’i ought to push for is autonomy that comes with responsibility and that would provide leeway for lecturers to guide students to conduct meaningful research.
The ministry should know that policy formulated in Jogoo House, its headquarters, may lead to excessive regulation and cumbersome procedures that hardly encourage proper research – which is core to innovation.
When universities are bent on a system steeped in hierarchy, which believes in foisting orders and commands, disallowing greater autonomy and academic freedom, the result is red tape which, to the scientific community, causes delays in funding research and approval processes.
For us to thrive among nations, the State must limit its role as a regulator and delegate matters of academic governance to universities in order to protect their autonomy.
But universities must also understand that autonomy which is executed without scrutiny, beyond professional norms, or without boundaries cannot help in serving the larger goal which is to serve the community and society. —The writer is a business writer, People Daily