Closing down public varsities best option as strikes persist

UASU chairman Muga Olale and Secretary General Constatine Wasonga during a protest for better pay in Nairobi last month. [File, Standard]

More than 40 days after it began, the lecturers’ strike is showing no sign of petering out. The matter is being treated with remarkable nonchalance.

The disruptions to higher education will take years to recover. An online campaign led by public universities students under the hashtag #EndLecturersStrike has ably captured their frustrations. A degree that would ordinarily finalise in about four years is now taking seven. 

The ongoing strike, the third in 12 months, should not have happened. This was a dispute that would easily have been solved had executive egos not muddied waters.

Troubled times

Dear Kenyans, the lecturers are still on strike because the Government has refused to talk to them. It is that simple. If insanity continues to prevail, this strike might be among the longest in recent history, threats of salary stoppage notwithstanding.

Among all civil servants, it is only lecturers who are not enjoying their current CBAs. A recent court ruling which gave the Inter Public Universities Council Consultative Forum (IPUCCF) 30 days to talk to lecturers is soon lapsing without any meaningful ‘voice’ from them.

This is not shocking. We live in troubled times where court orders and rulings are treated like background music.

Meanwhile, the Government continues to treat higher education as a tolerable appendage to its overall agenda. For the last four years, much of the attention and resources have been consumed in basic and secondary education.

For the Government, higher education simply does not exist. For a while, I thought that the Education Cabinet Secretary was overseas, attending to delicate issues with proximate value to local education affairs.

I refused to imagine that higher education would collapse on the watch of a public servant who had exhibited animated energy while at the Foreign Affairs ministry.

Mental problems

As a petition filed by the UASU asking the CS to end the strike lay unattended in her office, the honourable minister, with other senior Government officials, were in Western Kenya lending much-needed support to the Deputy President’s untimely 2022 presidential campaigns.

But if the minister took time to follow the hashtag on ending the lecturers’ strike, some frightening tales of poor, young Kenyans might rattle her.

On average, the current Fourth Year students in most public universities have been in college for between six and eight years.

In one instance, a parent lamented how one of her daughters had developed mental problems as a result of a ‘schizophrenic’ academic calendar.

In her fifth year, troubles multiplied when she was enticed to follow a sect led by an eccentric prophet.

The mother is distraught. For the last two months, the young girl wallows in endless reverie, with most days spent conversing with unseen beings and apparitions.

Another parent complained how he continues to pay rent for his three children who are housed in private accommodation, yet there is no actual learning taking place.

Among the worst, I assume, are those students whose campuses follow a staggered programme where learning takes place in unpredictable shifts.

One student recounted the tragic scenario where he will spend more than 17 months out of campus as he awaits his turn to complete the second semester of his second year of study.

He is contemplating dropping out and joining a vocational school. His colleagues in private universities are in employment.

Some students are considering an academic exodus to neighbouring countries. Others, in resigned indignation, suggest prayer.

In the context of the crises facing our education, the Government prefers to play normalcy, intimidating university bosses who would dare close universities that are already practically closed.

This is not the right forum to document what happens to students who are deliberately kept idle at their own expense. The bottom-line is clear: we are working pretty hard to collapse higher education.

Why don’t we suspend higher education for four years rather than ruin it? Apart from giving our leaders time to concentrate on the 2022 presidential elections, it will afford us sufficient time of reflection, and make better use of otherwise dormant facilities.

Sorry state

In the ongoing spirit of destroying the public and building the private, well demonstrated in the sorry state of the public health, agriculture, finance among others, we can on one hand outsource higher education to our neighbours and the enterpreneuring private hands who have continued to supply higher education generously like groundnuts and on the other, suspend higher education until the 2022 political crown is won! Within the four years, we might consider turning our oldest university, the University of Nairobi to a national museum.

As for Kenyatta University, we can return the facility to the Kenya Defense Forces at Kahawa Barracks for its original purpose.

Alongside Moi University, these institutions can be transformed into military training facilities since they seem to provide the most congenial settings for a rare mix of both urban and jungle military training.

University of Eldoret can be bequeathed to Athletics Kenya and its hostels converted to a high attitude athletics training complex. S

tudents can be advised to join the more vibrant and well-funded National Youth Service (NYS). Here, we will swap books for spades and help the Government achieve its Big Four’ agenda in just four years. 

After four years we might be more educated. We might even stumble upon what higher education means and the role of universities.

But the question still begs, is it too difficult for the Government to honour its word and end the lecturers’ strike to avoid collapsing higher education?

The writer is a researcher and university lecturer