KENYA: Pressure to speed up universities bill

Lecturers and politicians in Kenya have renewed pressure on the government to expedite a pending universities bill, which aims to revolutionise the country's shaky higher education sector. Among other things the bill seeks to bring all universities - public and private - under a common law and repeal the parliamentary acts of seven public universities.

Dons want Higher Education Minister William Ruto to table the bill, prepared early last year, before parliament for debate and approval. National Assembly Speaker Kenneth Marende has also asked the minister to table the bill, saying it was taking too long to reach his office.

Ruto was contacted for comment on the delay, but there was no response.

Vice-chancellors of public and private universities have welcomed the proposed reforms and said they were long overdue.

Educationists have hailed the legislation as the single strongest weapon in a government arsenal of action aimed at strengthening an ailing higher education sector that is mired in quality concerns and a biting admission crisis. The push by lecturers is seen as a signal that educationists are getting impatient with falling standards in institutions.

The proposed bill, formulated by the Ministry of Higher Education, seeks to repeal eight pieces of legislation that currently govern public universities.

Among its recommendation is the introduction of a universities act to govern all existing and emerging universities. Currently, each public university is established by its own act: these acts would become charters under one Universities Act.

The move was prompted by the number of new universities emerging as well as growing demand for higher education. With many universities being established, each having its own act no longer made sense, lecturers said.

Muga K'Olale, Secretary of the University Academic Staff Union, an umbrella union for lecturers in Kenya's seven public universities, argued that each university having its own act encouraged their haphazard running, which impacted negatively on quality.

"The law would change this to allow smooth and uniform management of these institutions," said K'Olale recently in the lakeside town of Kisumu.

Under the new law the Commission for Higher Education would be replaced by a Commission for University Education, mandated to deal with universities only and not tertiary colleges as is currently the case.

The new bill would give legal powers to the commission to extend its supervisory and regulatory roles to public universities. The current commission only has powers to register, regulate, supervise and inspect private institutions.

In future, public universities would also be subjected to quality assurance overseen by the commission - a role previously prevented by the university acts.

Also among provisions in the universities bill is one requiring a new team to be established to review the salaries of university staff, to ensure uniformity. The committee, whose members will be appointed by the higher education minister, will discuss lecturer salaries with their unions as well as other collective bargaining agreements.

An old provision that required any campus to have at least 50 acres (20 hectares) of land is also to be amended. This is in recognition of the fact that information and communication technologies have rendered land acreage and space less necessary for universities.

Speaker Kenneth Marende said the bill would ensure that enhanced investment to increase and expand universities was backed by sustained vigilance. "This will provide the enabling framework to develop and strengthen higher education as well as regulate the sector to ensure more access, equity, quality and relevance of our education system," he said.

The push for new legislation comes against a backdrop of dissatisfaction over Kenyan universities' continued lack of competitiveness in the global arena and their poor performance in international rankings.

None appears among the top 500 in the recently published Academic Ranking of World Universities. Africa is represented by only three institutions, all of them in South Africa - the universities of Cape Town, the Witwatersrand and Kwazulu-Natal.