University managers to be reshuffled to thwart tribalism

Kenya is set to dissolve and reconstitute management teams at all of its public universities, in an effort to end a cycle of tribalism that is said to be behind key appointments.

Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar said her ministry would in the coming months break up all university senates, councils and top management teams and start afresh.

The move – which raises serious questions around the autonomy of universities – could see some top managers lose their jobs, while others will be moved to other of the country’s seven public universities.

Kenya has been battling to curb growing ethnicity in key appointments in higher education institutions in the wake of 2008 post-election inter-tribal violence.

Mwai Kibaki, a member of the minority Kikuyu tribe, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, in a widely disputed poll. An estimated 800 people were killed during the ensuing violence, with up to 600,000 displaced, and many Kenyans fled the country as refugees.

A survey conducted by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, or NCIC – a body formed to investigate and help resolve tribal hatred – last year found that many staff members at universities and colleges were hired on the basis of their ethnic background rather than on merit.

Some universities were said to have drawn a majority of their employees from the areas where they are located, potentially fuelling tribalism, since Kenyan tribes live in selected areas.

“We have finalised plans to implement the NCIC recommendations, which will see us reconstitute and reshuffle management in public universities,” said Kamar last weekend. “We want to instil professionalism in the management of these institutions.”

The appointment of vice-chancellors and college principals based on tribal considerations has been said to be spreading to other ranks of employment in Kenya's universities, exacerbated by a rise in nepotism.

The creation of 13 constituent colleges of universities in 2010 confirmed this trend, as most are headed by people from the communities in which the colleges are based.

The government move, also seen as a way to give universities a national outlook, comes at a time when the sector is bracing for key changes under proposed higher education reforms.

Kenya is in the process of implementing the Higher Education Bill 2012, which will among other things see the formation of a powerful regulator to curb declining quality and to rein in university leaders. The bill, said Kamar, should be ready for implementation by September.

News that universities are fraught with tribalism is a recent problem for institutions already burdened by an admissions crisis and eroding credibility because of a perceived fall in the quality of teaching and learning.

Educationists believe universities should offer examples of leadership based on merit and not ethnicity. But unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. Appointments appear to bear marks of political meddling and attempts to placate local ethnic communities.

The changes come at a time when Kenya is looking to expand its university education system to cope with rising demand for learning opportunities within its population. The country has been grappling with falling quality of education due to lack of sufficient facilities and to inadequate tutors.