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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

We must halt the decline of our universities

The report on quality audit of university education by Kenya’s Commission for University Education (CUE) was a sobering indictment of the state of university education. The problems are grave and range from missing grades to the quality faculty staff to widespread academic fraud.

The findings of the CUE report, which was released early this year, demands that bold actions must be taken to restore the credibility of Kenya’s universities. This is especially critical in the age of a competitive knowledge-based global economy. Our true and most dependable resource is the quality of our human capital. We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our youth.

The time to act to restore confidence in public universities and secure the future of our country is now. Last week Dr. Matiangi, CS Education, urged stakeholders to re-examine how public universities are run. According to Dr. Matiangi, a lot of “bad things” are happening in our universities and the government could no longer “live with the kind of wastage and corruption that thrives in our universities”.

Dr. Matiangi has signaled a raft of reforms. These include tightening financial management. For example, the Universities Funding Board will manage financial disbursements. Moreover, all tuition revenue from parallel programs will be remitted to the national treasury. In 2015, Treasury CS revealed that public universities accounted for the largest share of “missing billions” of internally generated funds.

Public universities have not been transparent about their staffing levels. A recent audit revealed that all 31 public universities were not honest about the number of employees they have, inflating the figures by 2,513. In his recommendation for reform, CS Matiangi wants all support staff to be hired on contracts as opposed to the current terms, which are permanent appointments. 

Furthermore, Dr. Matiangi recommends that junior academic staff, tutorial fellows and lecturers, should be hired on short contract basis. Only senior lecturers and the professoriate will be hired on permanent and pensionable terms. As one would expect, this will be resisted by the Universities’ Academic Staff Union.

The reforms proposed by CS Matiangi can make a huge difference. One would hope that the Universities Funding Board does not become a painful, inscrutable new cuticle of bureaucracy, which in time becomes infected with Kenya’s most inevitable afflictions, corruption and ineptitude.  

The transition of terms of employment from permanent to fleeting contracts must be managed with sensitivity. Untidy contracts for junior faculty could dry out the supply of a dynamic and motivated reservoir of future professors. We must be clear about the criteria for promotion to the ranks of senior lecturer – the golden gate into permanency. Dr. Matiangi must tread carefully here.

That Dr. Matiangi’s reforms are well meaning is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether these reforms can be executed conscientiously. The future is summoning all of us to do the right thing by our children. Universities cannot be havens for corruption and fraud. Universities must the pillars of rectitude and moral clarity.

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