KENYA: Higher education minister fired

Kenya last week fired Higher Education Minister William Ruto (pictured), who had been suspended from cabinet last year following allegations of graft. His axing ends uncertainty that has engulfed the ministry for a year.

Ruto, who is also facing charges at the International Criminal Court in the Hague over Kenya's 2008 post-election violence, has been replaced by Professor Margaret Kamar.

Kamar is a soil scientist with a PhD from the University of Toronto, who taught at Moi University in Kenya and rose to become a deputy vice-chancellor before turning to politics four years ago.

Professor Hellen Sambili, the East African Cooperation Minister who picked up the higher education baton from Ruto in an acting capacity, was also shown the door last week in a cabinet reshuffle.

While Ruto was thought to be close to returning to his former docket after being cleared of corruption allegations in April, his souring relations with Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga - who is also Ruto's party boss - is thought to have cost him the job.

Odinga is in a coalition government with President Mwai Kibaki, in which they have agreed to share cabinet posts between their parties on a 50-50 basis. The prime minister is the appointing authority for his party's half of the posts.

The departure of Ruto, the mastermind behind a raft of plans aimed at improving Kenya's higher education system, has left educationists doubtful over the resuscitation of the sector's stalled reform agenda.

Ruto had kicked off a plan that would increase access to university education by enrolling all eligible students immediately after leaving school, to give Kenya much-needed high-level human capital to drive its growth target of becoming a middle-income economy in the next two decades.

Since he was suspended from office the government has uttered not a word about the plan, raising concerns that the project was a populist policy that could be too costly for the state to implement and could therefore fall victim to faltering political will.

Another Ruto brainchild was Kenya's plan to admit at least 40,000 extra students to higher education by partnering with private institutions, to help clear a decades-long backlog of places. This project has also been battling financial strain.

The Kenyan government is facing a financial squeeze in the wake of increased public expenditure arising from unplanned expenses, in an environment where revenue collection has come under intense pressure. This has left little room for investing in new plans.

The admissions backlog has grown since 1982, when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup, and it worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest against the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat meal programme in June 1991. School-leavers have to wait for a year before they can enroll in a public university.