76-day-long lecturer strike ends but for how long?

The recent collapse of the 76-day-long lecturers’ strike means that students at public universities can get back to their studies. But with no real resolution to the issues causing staff unhappiness, how long can stability in the sector be expected to last?

According to local media reports in Kenya, the ministry of labour had managed to broker a deal that saw the academics call off the strike while negotiations with the government continue.

“The strike has ended, members should go back to work and leave the union to handle matters of salaries,” said Constantine Wasonga, secretary general of the Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU).

Wasonga said the union had called off the strike not because they were satisfied but because of the 600,000 students in public universities that needed to learn.

Other sources revealed that a combination of poor results from lobbying, the voluntary return to work by significant numbers of staff, and government threats to fire lecturers unless they returned, caused panic among union officials, leaving them with no option but to call off the strike.

This implies that the strongest weapon of the lecturers against the government and university administrations proved ineffective in the long run.

Another strike looming?

Ishmael Munene, a Kenyan professor from the College of Education at Northern Arizona University in the United States, said that the 1.75% pay increase offered by the government against a 300% demand by UASU means that tensions will continue and the possibility of another strike looms.

Munene, who is also a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow, told University World News that there was no common agreement between lecturers and government on what is reasonable pay and the benefits that a university teacher should get.

“Figures are bandied around without recourse to economic conditions, cost of living, productivity of academics, and the market conditions of retaining particular academics in the universities vis-a-vis competition from other sectors,” he said.

Furthermore, there was no clarity on how the costs of lecturers and staff are going to be shared between the government and the universities, he said. According to the lecturers, it is expected that the government will fund all academic and non-academic staff, which was not generally done even in state universities in the West and in Asia.

Lack of clarity over negotiators

Munene said it was not clear who negotiates for the government. “Whereas academics and non-academics have unions, it is less clear on the government side. Is it the vice-chancellors’ body, the Inter-Public Universities Councils Consultative Forum [IPUCCF], or the ministry of education? Can the IPUCCF enter into an agreement that binds the state?” he asked.

With so many grey areas in the negotiation process, is it possible for the country to avoid a cycle of strikes again?

According to Munene, many academic experts believe that Kenya needs to move away from the routine of collective bargaining and adopt a more market-based approach to improving academic salaries. “In this model, there is a cost-of-living salary increase given to all to cover inflation and regional differences in the cost-of-living,” said Munene.

This, it is argued, should go along with an annual merit raise for academics who perform in accordance with agreed-upon parameters of productivity and output. This would mean that productive academics can expect a salary increase without necessarily waiting for unions to call a strike, he said.

Munene said there is also a need to move away from the belief that all universities are the same or need to be doing the same thing and have a uniform pay structure covering all institutions.

Such differentiation would be reflected in the establishment of ‘tier one’ universities which would include the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Moi University, Egerton University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. These would serve as premier universities focusing on research and graduate education whose academics are super performers and well remunerated.

The rest would be regional teaching universities focusing on undergraduate teaching and some professional postgraduate training. Academic staff would earn relatively lower salaries. Munene said a differentiated higher education system with differentiated expectations and remuneration would help to mitigate many strikes.

Impact on students

Anne Kubochi, a final-year student at Moi University’s School of Education, said lecturers need to devise another means other than strikes of achieving their entitlements.

She said university staff unions have been particularly poor at building coalitions with other public workers and civil society organisations. Calling a strike and demanding a 300% pay rise alienates them from other public servants who are equally underpaid, she said.

“The outcome is that the university administrations and the government have succeeded in forming a strong coalition against the academics.”

One of the greatest effects of the cycles of strikes has been disruption of the academic calendar and learning, according to Snyder Arusa, a third-year student at Maseno University. “Students now take longer to graduate because of these strikes,” she said, noting that were it not for the strikes, she could have graduated last year. She said medical students, who are supposed to graduate in seven years, are now taking eight years or more.

But Charles Omanga, employment and labour law expert, said that the negative attitudes from government and lecturers’ unions are a bottleneck to resolving the strikes. “There should be a willing attitude from both parties to come to the table for dialogue and negotiation,” said Omanga.

In an interview with University World News, Omanga called for the government to respond more quickly to labour issues to avert cycles of strikes. However, he said that strike matters are supposed to be directed to the ministry of labour while engaging the ministry of education and national treasury as stakeholders.

“It is the ministry of labour that has experience in industrial relations and it has elaborate industrial machinery to address labour matters,” said Omanga, adding that the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Kenya Employees should also be involved in collective bargaining negotiations.