Malik is an agreeable man. With an ever present smile and an avuncular deportment, his hulking frame belies his friendly nature. Malik is a lecturer at a public university in Nyanza, but not many people know exactly what he does because of the multiple identities his vocation imposes on him. His daily routine in the city of Kisumu is a dizzying rat-race. Having pulled out his two daughters from a decent private school due to tight costs, his day begins before dawn driving the girls to a cheaper public school across town.
An hour later he completes the drive to the university, thirty kilometres away where he darts from one lecture room to another. In all he lectures for no less than six hours each day. To make other ends meet, Malachi uses his training in Music to coach local choirs in the evening. He has lately taken to working part time as a disk-jockey in a local night club.
Last year, he stopped offering his services as a Math tutor in a holiday tuition ‘side hustle’ after the Ministry of Education came hard on the practice. Over the weekends, Malik sacrifices crucial family time and travels over five hours to two other universities to teach on a part time arrangement. As a Music scholar, he is one of very few PhD’s in music in Kenya.
Although still in his mid-thirties his doctor has advised he slows down or risk running a high blood pressure. Malik is an alumnus of the prestigious UK based Cambridge University and a fellow of its Kings College. Malik’s hopes of living a normal professional life, devoid of the maddening rat-race, with walks in the cool of the evening with his two pretty girls, depends on the outcome of the ongoing lecturer’s strike.
The lecturer’s strike is nearing a month with little progress in the talks so far. University campuses across the country have practically closed down, with university bosses restrained from making official closures by a Jubilee government that excels in staging appearances and burying its head in cyberspace. The public health system is nearly collapsed as a result of the doctors’ strike and there is a risk the higher education system will cave in under the pain of the ongoing strike.
The University’s Academic Staff Union (Uasu) has legitimate concerns. A CBA drafted in 2013 will expire in a few months and the government is keen to buy time, possibly to render the agreement void. On several occasions the government side has displayed irresponsibility by turning up for meetings with no intention to deliberate. The state is sticking to a 3 per cent pay rise, which translates to an increase equivalent to an average meal for two in a downtown restaurant. I am gradually forming an opinion that the Jubilee government is disinterested in securing a second term.
I have argued previously that the clamour for better remuneration by university dons is not merely about pay, but is part of an ongoing struggle for dignity for lecturers and academic freedom in our campuses. It is for the good of the entire public that university dons are well remunerated. Low pay in the academe affects academic freedom, a prerequisite for both high quality higher education and a socially engaged professoriate. The idea of academic freedom is drawn from the concept – from 19th century German universities -- of Lehrfreiheit -- or freedom to impart knowledge. It subsumes a deliberate attempt to protect the right of professors, in their teaching and research, to follow their ideas wherever they led them.
It assumes a university don is freed from the encumbrance of bread and butter issues, so as to pursue knowledge, to the betterment of society. Poor pay undermines the spirit of academic freedom. The entire society suffers when its brightest brains, those tasked with formulating ideas, and conducting research like Malik, are forced to live dangerously, hustling from county to another. The last we talked, Malik was contemplating relocation to a South African country.
Not only has poor pay forced lecturers to focus on the basics of life, but worse for Kenyans, lecturers have gradually withdrawn their critical voice from important societal concerns like social justice, democracy and human rights. In the aftermath of the disillusionment that swept through the 70s and 90s, universities played a pivotal role in fashioning organised agitations against Kenya’s previous repressive regimes.
When founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s coercive state reproduced a very obedient press, where the media located its role in an uncritical construction of nationhood, universities and academic staff were the only ‘autonomous’ voices for the voiceless masses. Instructively, after Oginga Odinga fell out with Kenyatta and formed Kenya People’s Union, it was only the university that had the audacity to provide a platform for Odinga’s socialist ideas. The state responded by shutting the university and detaining several lecturers.
In the early 90s, when salaries of senior government officials like permanent secretaries and parliamentarians were comparable to those of a professor, university lecturers had the luxury and time to give momentum to the dominant issues of their days. In a conversation I had with Prof Korwa Adwar, a former national chairperson of UASU who led one of the most successful and organized strikes in the 90s, I learnt that dons were often occupied with issues of national concern.
In 1994 for instance, UASU called a nationwide strike calling for the registration of the union, greater academic freedom and an expanded democratic space in the country. For this, Prof Adwar and a number of his colleagues were sacked and dragged to court. Today Kenyans enjoy a better democratic space as a result of these sacrifices.
Widely held perceptions
Sadly, the university lecturer today has been deliberately and strategically pauperized, most likely to undermine his/her intellectual role. As an intellectual, the university don is an obvious opinion leader; a transformative social agent committed to the articulation of the interests of the economically and politically dominated, and who gives voice to the aspirations of embattled social groups. As such, it is in the interests of oppressive political regimes to impoverish intellectuals, keeping them busy at eking a life. In contrast, it is in the interest of the wider public for an economically empowered don.
In actual fact, every regime in Kenya engaged with university lecturers in ways that were a reflection of how those particular regimes perceived the entire Kenyan public. As former dons themselves, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga’s coalition government attempted to redeem the dignity of intellectuals in Kenya.
However, the Jubilee government must do more to prove widely held perceptions that it is anti-intellectual, and that it is unease with those who occupy and practice the intellectual vocation. For Malik and thousands like him to be emancipated from multiple diversions and fulfill their proper intellectual role to society, the state ought to sign the 2013 CBA. This agreement is Kenya’s badge of academic freedom and intellectual dignity. Kenya wins when university lecturers are well paid.
—The writer is Head of Department, Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)