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Regulators a threat to universities’ autonomy

By Duncan Omanga | Published Sat, April 15th 2017 at 00:00, Updated April 14th 2017 at 23:46 GMT +3
Former LSK (Rift ValleBychapter) chairmen Lawrence Karanja (centre) and Kipkoech Ng’etich (right) with other lawByers after addressing a press conference in Nakuru recently in support of Moi University’s law programme. [Photo: File/Standard]

The Council of Legal Education (CLE) has locked horns with some universities over accreditation of their law programmes.

In particular, the regulatory agency is facing a legal suit filed by Moi University following an adverse decision on its law degree programme.

Although the matter is still in court, an audit report on the council’s website provides a hint that one of the greatest threats to academic freedom and university autonomy is the invasive posture by regulatory and professional bodies.

A year ago, a number of newly-established universities offering engineering courses were at logger heads with the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) over the status of their engineering courses.

The matter escalated to street riots involving university students and police following claims that graduates on those specific programmes would not be recognised by the board. Meanwhile, the state is increasingly becoming more interventionist with regard to higher education.

This week, Education CS Fred Matiang’i directed newly-formed university councils to begin their mandate by studying the recently state-prompted Commission for University Education (CUE) audit report and implementing the recommendations therein.

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Among several things, the CS called for probe into universities’ examination systems, academic procedures and the so-called ‘missing marks.’ The import of the CS chasing after ‘missing marks’ in an academic department means the state, like some professional bodies, is taking up a role seen as one of interference rather than steering. There is little doubt that higher education is going through one of its most difficult phases, with challenges such ranging from poor financing, overcrowding, decreased quality, low morale among staff to poor governance.

While most of these issues require some form of external intervention from the state or professional bodies, they should be executed in a context that respects institutional autonomy of universities and the values of academic freedom.

Academic freedom assumes that, in the pursuit of their vocation, academics are free to pursue truth whenever it leads without fear of some political, religious or social orthodoxy.

Academic autonomy is more institutional than individual. While absolute autonomy is an ideal, especially when universities rely on state funding almost exclusively, discussions on a university’s autonomy centre on substantive autonomy.

Substantive autonomy is where universities must be left to pursue their own goals and programmes but the state and professional bodies can advise on the procedures of how these goals can be attained. In a sense, professional bodies, the state or other external agencies must not interfere with what scholar Daniel Sifuna calls ‘the heart of academia’.

For instance, in the CLE report on Moi University, the intervention of the council was prompted by students unrest. It raised concern over lost time, requiring the institution to demonstrate how such time would be recovered.

The council went further probing the lettering and meaning of the institutions’ stated vision and mission. While other issues were raised in the report, it was evident that the professional outfit had turned adventurist and usurped the functions of the academic senate and other governance bodies within the university.

Critical decisions

The senate is the governing body, and the supreme academic body of the university. It is comprised of all scholastic units of the university and is constituted as a deliberative space where rational debate is supposed to inform decisions and opinion.

While academic policy created by the university senate must conform to state policy and the requirements of professional bodies, the oversight of such things as university calendar, students’ discipline and the mission and vision of a university are clearly not the business of the state or professional bodies. That is the work of the university senate.

Few can deny the crucial role played by professional bodies in upholding and maintaining quality of university education by the power they wield through licensing and moderating professional practice. When done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and the common good, stakeholder opinion on university curricula and inspections by professional regulatory bodies is a valuable, often necessary incentive to institutional development.

State intervention

In actual fact, the purpose of state intervention and professional bodies’ monitoring of professional programmes such as Law, Engineering, Medicine and Education is primarily for the protection of the general public by assuring the quality of programmes and the graduates produced through them. However, the ‘common good’ those professional regulatory bodies proclaim needs interrogation and scrutiny especially when it becomes invasive, picky and overzealously executed.

For instance, before the adverse decisions on several law schools were declared, some prominent lawyers had publicly complained that there were simply too many lawyers coming out of universities.

Shortly after, another lawyer, a voracious publicity hound, was quoted in a news report calling for the closure of a specific law school. Such pronouncements highlight the need to scrutinise the actual motives driving the purported closures. There is a tendency of professional regulatory bodies abusing their powers by acts that hide behind ‘quality checks’ to mark and isolate professional territory, insulate and monopolize employment, dramatise nobility and protect incomes.

Recent adventurism by professional bodies not only flies in the face of academic freedom and autonomy, but also betrays a culture of gate keeping rather than one that develops and expands the professional field. As such, professional bodies appear keen at creating guilds and exclusive clubs than at fulfilling the aspirations of other deserving Kenyans.

Worryingly, as universities strive for more creativity and innovation, professional bodies impose difficult requirements on accreditation some of which are duplicative, inconsistent, discouraging innovation and ignoring an institution’s distinctive goals. In many cases, proposed demands undermine the ethos of academic freedom and university autonomy.

As a result, many professional regulatory bodies are now confusing their quality assurance and advisory roles with the powers to dictate how, where and when a programme should be delivered. These roles fall squarely within the mandate of the university senate. The state, regulatory and professional bodies must learn to respect territory.

For high academic standards to be kept, the autonomy of universities and academic freedoms must be upheld and jealously defended. Importantly, while professional regulatory bodies can be involved in the development of university programmes, the overall authority to approve, deliver and evaluate a university programme rests with the university senate.

It is preposterous for professional bodies and by extension the industry to imagine that universities are merely the uncritical conveyor belts of professional demands and industry logics. It is important we acknowledge the sometimes different logics that define both the academe and the industry and where possible seek to reconcile them.

To safeguard their autonomy and academic freedom, universities must also set up and adhere to their own quality standards as regards curriculum development, deliver and evaluation. It is only through adherence to high quality internal mechanisms that will halt the overzealousness of professional bodies and the persistent state interventionism.

If the government’s and professional bodies’ views dominate deliberations and decisions in the university, the hallowed space of the university as an autonomous entity will be greatly undermined. This should not happen.