Strike for higher pay cripples public universities

More than 12,000 academic and non-teaching staff at public universities in Kenya have gone on strike for better pay and conditions of service, paralysing institutions. Students took to the streets of Nairobi on Tuesday in solidarity with lecturers and one university has been closed.

The strike began on 6 September and has severely disrupted the admissions process and induction of new students being admitted to universities. The action has hit the University of Nairobi, the country’s biggest university, particularly hard.

There is no sign of the industrial action being resolved.

Initial talks between unions and employers failed to reach agreement. Lecturers are insisting a collective bargaining agreement reached between unions and the authorities in 2010 be fully implemented.

Consultations between university councils and the government has also failed to find a solution, with Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Margaret Kamar insisting that neither Treasury nor universities has the money to meet striker demands.

Last week Masinde Muliro University sent home 2,000 students “until further notice”, giving no reasons for the closure. Sources said it might be to prevent unruly action by students.

“The action means authorities have no idea when this stand-off is likely to be resolved, now that even non-teaching staff have joined the strike,” said a lecturer, who did not want to be named.

Both the Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) and the Universities Non Teaching Staff Union are demanding full implementation of the 2010-12-14 collective bargaining agreement signed by the unions and university managements, which guaranteed improved pay and conditions of service after a crippling strike.

Professor Muga K’Olale, UASU secretary general, said teaching in universities would only resume after lecturer demands were met. “It is within the law for us unions to negotiate terms of service with employers.

“We have made an offer to universities' heads, it is now upon them to come and tell us what they can give back. Once this happens we shall sit together, talk and come up with a solution favorable to all and end the strike,” said K’Olale.

Vice-chancellors of Kenya’s six public universities have been meeting with officials in an effort to find a way out of the crisis.

They told unions that universities cannot afford to pay the salaries and allowances staff have demanded, and have asked the government to chip in to help them afford the higher pay.

But the government has stated that it has no money, and has asked universities to come up with creative ways of raising their own funds, adding that universities are fairly autonomous in matters of finance.

Lecturers have regularly gone on strike in Kenya. The worst episode was in 2000 and resulted in months of paralysis of the system and the dismissal of academics, some of whom subsequently got their jobs back while others found work abroad.

The rapid expansion of higher education has piled pressure on staff at public and private universities alike, who believe that levels of pay and service conditions do not reflect the work they do.