Row over ownership, status hits top private university
Education experts say the row could injure the reputation of one of the most sought-after and respected higher education institutions in the country, nearly 45 years after the university opened its Africa campus in the Kenyan capital Nairobi as a branch of the United States International University, or USIU, San Diego.
The latest controversy was sparked by a former cabinet minister Joe Nyagah, who claimed that his family owned a stake in the institution, as his late father had allegedly served as one of its initial trustees.
“I feel my family owns a stake in this university and we should not only be recognised but should also be getting something from its income,” the former cabinet minister told the parliamentary committee on education that started hearings regarding USIU-Africa last month.
Allegations have been made by various detractors since late last year that the university could have secretly changed hands, and had become a profit-making institution rather than a non-profit entity – claims the institution has totally dismissed.
There have been allegations in the media that the university – whose alumni reads like a who’s who of Kenya’s private and public sectors – could have breached provisions of the Universities Act 2012, including by operating without appointing a chancellor – allegations that long-serving but now retiring Vice-chancellor Professor Freida Brown has denied.
Questions have also been raised over why the current chair of the board of trustees, wealthy Kenyan industrialist Dr Manu Chandaria, has also been listed as the university’s chancellor, while the two positions are different and independent under the Universities Act 2012.
“We operate as a not-for-profit institution with all surplus funds put back into the development of international education standards in Africa,” Jane Muriithi-Thomas, the university’s marketing and communications manager, told University World News.
“To my knowledge we are not in breach of the Universities Act,” she said, adding that if the university was contravening the law she doubted Education Cabinet Secretary Professor Jacob Kaimenyi and Kenya’s deputy president would have opened the university’s new science centre in March.
Established in Kenya in 1969 as the Africa campus of the parent institution, teaching courses including psychology and counselling, it was not until 1999 that USIU was granted letter of interim authority and quickly diversified its menu of courses to include communications, liberal arts, ICT and commerce.
The university swiftly established itself as a leading private institution, at a time when many Kenyans who missed admission to public universities were seeking higher education in countries such as India, America and the United Kingdom.
It has since become a destination of choice for learners and parents keen to acquire quality education from one of Kenya’s best institutions.
With a student population of 4,800 – including some 500 students from more than 50 countries – its alumni include CEOs and politicians who have enrolled for evening studies for various courses thanks to USIU-Africa’s reputation as a place where quality education is offered.
It is because of intricacies surrounding the university’s ownership that a Kenyan MP last year asked parliament to investigate, among other things, whether USIU-Africa was a foreign university incorporated in Kenya or a local university, and if so who its owners were.
“Outside failing to pay taxes as required by the law we want the government to confirm or deny that USIU-San Diego had secretly tried to sell off USIU-Africa without the knowledge of the board of trustees and the Commission for University Education,” said MP Victor Munyaka.
An answer provided by the university through the government was deemed to be unsatisfactory, prompting a ruling by the assembly speaker to order a probe.
As the parliamentary committee recently began hearing submissions from different parties, there was further speculation that powerful forces both in Kenya and the US could allegedly be behind a scheme to exploit loopholes in the legal and ownership structure of the university and buy it off.
Again, USIU has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. Becoming a top private university, it seems, has not only attracted growing numbers of good students but also efforts to cash in on the institution’s success.