KENYA: Paralysing lecturer strike suspended, for now

Lecturers in public universities in Kenya have suspended their paralysing nine-day strike for two weeks to pave the way for negotiations with the government. The tussle has triggered a debate over who should pick up the wage bill.

The strike, which started on 9 November, shut down several of the country's seven public universities and was threatening to close the rest. Learning ground to a halt, examinations were suspended and at least three graduation ceremonies postponed as the state locked horns with lecturers who are demanding a huge pay rise.

On Thursday the lecturers agreed to hold talks with the government over their salary demands and come up with a solution within a fortnight. If the negotiations fail, academics said they would resume the strike.

Kenyan lecturers, statistics show, are among the lowest paid in the region yet they handle some of the largest classes - a situation that has for years stoked disputes between academics and the government, which is their employer. For some academics, salaries are to be doubled under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that they are tussling over.

The stand-off over salaries has shifted focus to how the government could once and for all tackle the issue of lecturer pay. With the state invariably falling short on meeting academic pay demands, educationists said there was need to rethink the way it deals with university financing.

Last week, the government insisted that it lacked the money to pay academics the at least 40% pay hike they are demanding. Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar said Kenya's finances were being drained by the war with Al-Shabaab militias in Somali.

Some educationists and commentators have argued that the government should consider shifting the lecturers' payroll to universities, a direction most Latin American and Asian countries have taken and is also the system in many Western countries such as the United States and United Kingdom.

"This strike should be a wakeup call for the government to rethink its financing structures for public universities," said a former senior university administrator who sought anonymity as he now consults for the government.

"Let's face it, universities should be left to pay their operating expenses like salaries and rental while the government fixes the faltering infrastructure."

While Kenya's public universities are required to generate income from fee-charging student programmes, the money has over the years been used to supplement government subsidies to develop infrastructure. Public universities rely heavily on government allocations to run their operations.

Universities picking up the wage bill, analysts argued, would free government coffers of the US $300 million bill that it spends on lecturers annually. This would make sense for Kenya, with its public purse strained as the government grapples with unplanned expenditures on urgent issues like drought and the war in Somali.

In recent weeks Kenya has gone to war in Somalia in an bid to wipe out militias who have become a major security threat to East Africa's biggest economy, hurting its tourism sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner.

Kenya missed its tax revenue targets in the first quarter of 2010-11 fiscal year by $221 million as the effects of a feeble economy and high inflation knocked tax collection, meaning the country will find it hard to meet its budgetary obligations. Government revenue collection from July to September was 13% below the targeted $1.5 billion.

Through their lobby, the Universities Academic Staff Union, lecturers said the strike would resume if they failed to reach a deal on the collective bargaining agreement.

So far Egerton University, Masinde Muliro and several campuses of Moi University have been shut down and labour action threatened to close other universities like Nairobi, Kenyatta, Jomo Kenyatta and Maseno.

Should the lecturers carry the day, professors can expect their monthly salaries to increase from the current range of between Sh63,199 (US$631) and Sh81,828 ($818) to between Sh384,000 ($3,840) and Sh576,000 ($5,760). Workers at the lower end of the spectrum, such as graduate assistants, can expect pay to rise to between Sh79,550 and Sh134,550 a month.

This is the second time lecturers have gone on strike over the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement. The last time was in late 2010, when the government capitulated and promised to honour the deal.

Low pay is being blamed for an exodus of lecturers from Kenyan universities, not only to Europe and North America but also to neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, where academics are paid better and handle fewer students per class.

The strike by lecturers is seen by labour economists and unionists as a signal that Kenyan workers have been becoming increasingly disenchanted by the rising cost of living, which has hugely eroded their purchasing power.

Over the past 10 months inflation has been rising sharply, hitting 18.91% in October, up from barely 5% in January this year. Inflation has been blamed on the surging costs of food and fuel. During the period, salaries for most workers have stagnated and any increases have hovered below 10%, eroding workers' buying power.

This is one major argument lecturers are putting forward in their demand. Apart from poor pay, academics also complain of lack of time to concentrate on research because of undergraduate teaching commitments.