New round of university reforms to affect staffing, funds

Kenyan universities are set for another round of reforms that will give them more autonomy over the way they recruit staff and more responsibility for funding their operations.

The country’s Ministry of Education has proposed far-reaching changes which will see the universities follow global trends around fundraising, engaging in industry-based consultancies, mobilising alumni resources and commercialising production units.

Under the reforms, the government will fully fund students who wish to take up teaching assistantships after completing postgraduate studies. They will be supported to attain their PhDs and eventually serve as teaching assistants.

This measure, the policy document says, will help to address the difficulty of attracting and retaining qualified staff, especially PhD holders, in all disciplines, particularly those of national priority.

Three years ago, Kenya’s Commission for University Education announced that only PhD holders would be allowed to teach at universities as lecturers. Holders of masters degrees, no matter their experience or number of publications, could only be appointed as 'junior lecturers' and tutorial fellows.

According to government statistics, the number of professors in public universities has risen by only 13% over the past eight years while student numbers have soared five fold, generating an ever-rising student-to-lecturer ratio.

Kenya has a total of 74 universities (31 of which are public) and has witnessed rapid growth in higher education in the past five years. Student enrolment has risen from 122,847 in 2008 to 586,434 in 2018, with the largest number of enrolments (507,554) being in public universities.

In terms of the latest reforms currently before parliament, payment of academic staff salaries will be based on the courses being taught. Furthermore, public university councils will be given a full mandate to determine the remuneration, terms and conditions of service for staffing individual universities based on their specific needs and thus develop strategies to attract and retain staff.

Currently, the conditions and terms are established after negotiations between the ministry and the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) and are then applied across all universities and disciplines. According to the policy paper, the current rules deny public universities the opportunity to attract and retain the right mix of teaching staff needed.

The new model marks a departure from the current 25-year-old set-up where each academic programme is allocated a flat rate of US$1,200 per student. This has traditionally favoured older and larger institutions like the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, at the expense of new and smaller universities.

The reforms are part of wider changes that will see university students pay fees based on the courses they are pursuing – the Differentiated Unit Cost system.

Public universities will be required to self-finance nearly their entire budget by engaging in income-generating activities linked to education services. Currently, over 80% of public universities’ financial needs are met by the national treasury.

“University education is at a crossroads and requires a rethink. Unplanned and uncoordinated expansion of universities in the past two decades brought us where we are. There are many universities, but they are unable to sustain themselves,” said the Daily Nation, the leading Kenyan newspaper, in an editorial last week.

“Given the prevailing situation, universities must think and operate like corporates. Staffing must be rationalised, luxuries such as vehicles for managers cut and expenditures controlled tightly,” the paper said.

Data shows that government capitation has been significant compared to the total revenues generated by most public universities in the last five years. Currently, the government spends about 27% of its budget on education with US$1.03 billion going to university education, compared to the US$2 billion on basic education, according to various government reports seen by University World News.

Education experts are calling for consolidation of public universities to reduce their numbers and create big self-sustaining institutions.

“I have seen my colleagues in the universities going on strike because the institutions lack [enough] money. My opinion is that those universities should be consolidated. There is no reason why we should have four universities within a 60 kilometre radius,” said George Magoha, a former University of Nairobi vice-chancellor and now chairman of the Kenya National Examinations Council, a government agency.