Kenya dithers on university reforms amid backlash

The Kenyan government has halted the ongoing restructuring of the country’s public universities to avert a surging backlash against the changes.

Professor George Magoha, the cabinet secretary for education, pointed out that reforms must be approved by the ministry of education prior to their implementation.

The announcement came amid a crisis that has engulfed the University of Nairobi, Kenya’s largest by student numbers, after it reviewed its top leadership structure three months ago. Magoha said his office was not consulted, and neither was approval sought to roll out the far-reaching changes.

The directive has caused confusion, as the government had earlier in the year called for an overhaul of the university education sector to boost quality and access.

Over the past few months, public universities in the country have been going through intensive reforms to save costs, stem biting financial distress and align themselves to labour market demands amid growing concerns over the deteriorating quality of learning.

“Any proposed changes must be accompanied by the rationale for the institution, the proposed changes and proposed human resources instruments,” Magoha said in a 14 July letter to vice-chancellors, principals of constituent colleges and chairpersons of the institutions and constituent college councils.

The details should include “the organising structure, staff establishment, human resource policies and guidelines”, as well as “council resolutions approving all above instruments and proposed recruitment and availability of budget to cater for the proposed restructuring, until approvals and gazettement of the relevant instruments”, Magoha said.

Restructuring woes

The University of Nairobi had in June abolished five offices of deputy vice-chancellors and replaced them with two positions of associate vice-chancellors, triggering a massive fallout within its ranks.

The changes also saw the university reduce its colleges from 35 to 11. Additionally, all positions of principals and deputy principals have been reorganised.

Professor Stephen Kiama, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, argued that the reforms will usher in governance and structural gains by reducing bureaucracy and associated operational costs.

“We are yet to simulate the numbers but are working on it. We are now actualising the new governance structure following its approval. The next step will be the finance officer engaging the various units on a quick-allocation budget,” he said.

“Then we start comparing the figures on allocation this year to that of previous years. Since we have fewer administration units, it means our costs will come down,” Kiama added.

But the government has other thoughts.

Magoha said any action on the proposed changes “should be kept in abeyance pending the relevant approvals and-or gazettement of the instruments”.

“Where proposed reviews necessitate amendments to charter or legal notices, the proposed amendments must be forwarded to the ministry through the Commission for University Education before being gazetted by the cabinet secretary,” Magoha said.

Review in jeopardy?

The announcement throws into jeopardy what had been touted as the most comprehensive review of the country’s university education system since independence.

In 2019, the government had announced a series of changes, among them the merging of some universities and campuses to leave the country with fewer institutions that are better staffed and have adequate facilities to deliver high-quality education.

The government was also to audit infrastructure projects in universities as part of moves to streamline university financial management systems.

Other changes included austerity measures aimed at freeing up funds for investment in academic projects, a freeze on the establishment of new campuses and consolidation of similar academic programmes and focus on areas of specialisation.

In late April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) asked Kenya to overhaul its three top public universities to save them from financial distress as part of the conditions of a US$2.34 billion loan to the country.

The IMF, the private investment arm of the World Bank, identified the three universities – Kenyatta, Nairobi and Moi, as among the top state-owned agencies carrying the biggest financial risks.

This is because the institutions have been registering persistent losses for an extended period and continue to struggle to stay afloat, a situation that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenya has been left with no option but to overhaul the institutions as the US$2.34 billion bailout has saved the country from a debt crisis during the pandemic.

The country’s public universities are battling a damaging financial crunch in the wake of falling revenues from commercial activities at a time when government subsidies, the biggest source of funds for the institutions, have not grown in tandem with student numbers, leaving them with gaping deficits.