As we predicted last year, the truce between the Ministry of Education and the universities’ academic staff was going to be short-lived.
Our contention that the underlying issues that triggered the withdrawal of labour by the University Academic Staff Union (Uasu) had not been tackled conclusively was valid. Even as they called off the strike after protracted talks, lecturers demanded that all the provisions of the 2013/2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement be finalised by the end of January.
The bone of contention is government’s reluctance to offer a counter-offer for the lecturers’ 2017-2021 salary and allowance provisions. Too much push and pull characterised the Sh10 billion 2013-2017 agreement that was settled last year and the lecturers should have know this.
And true to its nature, the Government has prevaricated and dragged its feet leading to the latest round of strike.
The constant disruption of learning in public universities will, in the long run, impact on the quality of graduates and consequently, the human capital that enters into the job market. Lecturers went on strike in 2003, 2004, 2012 and 2014.
That is a lot more than happens in most countries. The spate of strikes risks undermining our human resource development; a key ingredient for growth and development. Employers want people with the right attitude and skills. Recurring strikes robs the learners the chance to adequately grow and nurture those skills.
Indeed, interruptions in the learning process impact negatively on the quality of education in our universities, an occurrence that has, over the years, lowered our international rankings. There is little to expect when learners and lecturers rush through lessons to beat deadlines. Or worse, when lecturers go through the motions because they have been coaxed into renouncing a push for pay.
Part of what informs the prevalent strike culture in educational institutions is the overreliance on the funds from the Exchequer to fund operations at the universities.
Fees paid by learners are hardly enough to plug the expenditure gap. And because universities must compete for funds with other vital sectors like health, security and infrastructure, the funds will either rise marginally or remain constant. Put it another way, this will not be the last of those strikes. More will come as the cost of living rises and tutors demand more pay for their work. And therefore, a radical shift of thought from college administrators is required to break the mould of university funding.
One way of weaning off universities Exchequer funding is to scale up funding in research and development as a diversification strategy. There is a constant appetite for usable research be it in science or in arts. This way, universities will be at the forefront in promoting innocation and invention that drive growth. There is no question that funded well, universities can provide well-thought-out, reliable and timely research to corporates and organisations and even to government.
Governments and taxpayers want to assess the impact of policy. For example, research in agriculture on the drought-resistant crops or on the best business models for SMEs; or why certain diseases are more prevalent now than in the past. Is it the change of diet, climate change?
In a nutshell, universities should be at the forefront in promoting research that seek answers to the most pressing needs of the people; poverty and disease.
Moreover, attracting funding from international bodies like the World Bank, WHO and Unep through research is viable and sustainable. It also promotes collaboration between top universities and learners across the globe.
With the funds that accrued from the parallel programmes having run out with the stringent measures introduced in the management of exams and results, research offers a better way to fund universities. Going into the future, it is evident that there has to be a fresh thinking on funding initiatives that are sustainable and achievable. Relying on the Exchequer is no longer smart thinking.
The ministry of Education and Uasu should ensure the current stalemate is resolved immediately so that learning can continue.
Because ultimately, strikes pose a negative impact on the economy. Students will take inordinate time to complete their courses thereby slowing their contribution to society besides creating a lag in the learning stream.