Politics and protest – Universities in the crossfire

Nairobi’s Muthurwa Market, a downtown open-air facility, has three new greenhorn traders. Mark Kamau and his two classmates are third-year state-sponsored students at the University of Nairobi. Instead of attending to their studies, over the last three weeks they have been hawking boiled eggs every evening, targeting the droves of factory workers trekking home. On a good day, they make US$6.

This year their lives were turned upside down by disruptions to the academic calendar caused by the country’s elections and industrial strikes by lecturers. As a result, Kamau and his cohort are lagging behind by more than one academic year, meaning it will take them at least five years to complete the four-year bachelor of arts degree course.

On 3 October, the University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mbithi announced the indefinite closure of the country’s second largest institution following a spate of student unrest believed to be related to Kenya’s current volatile political environment.

The country is to hold another general election on 26 October after the Supreme Court annulled the re-election of the country’s leader President Uhuru Kenyatta on 1 September and called for a fresh election. However, the re-election process faces fresh trouble as a result of the withdrawal on 10 October of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Prior to the recent closure of the University of Nairobi, students had been staging protests against what they claimed was the use of excessive force and sexual harassment on the part of police at the universities of Nairobi and Maseno.

“With the latest closure, it appears, we might be off campus until the New Year which could hugely distort the academic calendar,” said Kamau. “We are doing this [hawking] to keep ourselves busy and to make some extra money in order to survive during the period. The alternative is travelling back to the village to live with my peasant mother,” he said.

Lecturers’ strike

In addition to student unrest, a more worrying potential disruption is emerging. On the same day the University of Nairobi shut its doors, university lecturers countrywide issued a 21-day strike notice to the government, warning that they will down tools with effect from 31 October.

The Universities Academic Staff Union said the strike involving the country’s 31 public universities was intended to force the government to honour a basic salary and house allowance deal agreed by the parties two years ago. The government says it has not met its part of the bargain due to budget constraints arising out of the general election which cost the country over US$600 million.

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 tutors are paid better and face lower numbers of students per class. Apart from poor pay, lecturers complain of lack of time to concentrate on research because of undergraduate teaching commitments.

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 that is at the centre of the upcoming strike action.
According to a Nairobi-based academic, the disruptions facing the sector are the product of poor governance.

“The sector is reeling from poor governance, explaining the strikes and the student unrests,” said Charles Njuguna, a PhD student in Nairobi.

“We are looking at a prolonged challenge as universities cope with the disruptions … [The strike is] adding yet another layer of problems to an already desperate situation,” said Njuguna, who also teaches part-time in two tertiary colleges in Nairobi.

The private sector is also affected by disruptions.

On 8 October, Mount Kenya University, the country’s largest private institution by student numbers, shut down its main campus, citing student unrest. Students engaged police officers in running battles for the better part of the day. More universities are expected to send their students home over the next two weeks as the country nears the politically charged election and in anticipation of the lecturers’ strike.

Should the strike proceed it will have a potential impact on over 150,000 public university students. At least 20,000 students have joined public universities over the past three months as first-year students.

‘Untold suffering’

Weighing in on the debate, in an editorial, the Daily Nation newspaper last week wrote: “The concern here is that a lecturers’ strike is bound to be very disruptive. It paralyses academic programmes and causes untold suffering to students and their parents. The lecturers were on strike early in the year, which affected the academic calendar. Another strike at this time will be disastrous.

“Time has come when we must rethink higher education. Regular strikes either by students or lecturers are symptoms of a far deeper malaise. We need radical reforms, including shutting down those struggling universities and campuses, which do not add value to higher education. In the meantime, the authorities must resolve this pay dispute to avert another crisis in public universities,” the newspaper said.

Kenyan universities are still reeling from the results of a country-wide university audit which uncovered serious weaknesses in quality. They are also weighed down by overflowing classes, strained facilities and a shortage of lecturers. There are fears now that a prolonged shutdown could also produce another admissions backlog.

Universities recently underwent an expanded admission process in terms of which the country sought to end a decades-long backlog that resulted in students having to wait for up to two years after high school to enter the public higher education system.

The delay has meant that by the time government-sponsored students secure places, peers enrolled in parallel or fee-charging courses are way ahead in their degrees – an imbalance seen as disadvantaging government-sponsored and poorer students.

“Students at the public universities have reason to worry about their future. While their colleagues in most private institutions can plan with certainty when they will complete their studies, the calendar of public universities is often interrupted by factors beyond the control of the administration,” said Peter Warutere, a commentator on social issues who previously worked with the World Bank in Nairobi.

“The administration should regularly advise students on the pros and cons of engaging in public demonstrations. The students need to know that while they have a democratic right to picket or protest, these rights come with responsibility. The risk of breakdown in an organised protest can also be costly. The administration should also deal firmly with students who fail or prefer not to complete their studies in time,” he said.