State driven model killing university autonomy

The structural composition in Kenya, made up largely of appointees of the state, compromises any chance of ‘integrity’. [Photo, Standard]

Late last month, news surfaced that Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed had ‘stepped in’ to solve a leadership row at the University of Nairobi after appointing four Deputy Vice Chancellors (DVCs).

The use of messianic terms to describe actions of the CS reflected a general poverty of leadership and a crisis of university governance in Kenya. The drama preceding and following the appointments should index an urgent need to reform governance structures in higher education.

According to media reports, the appointments were designed to bring closure to power struggles at the institution that had consigned key sections of Finance, Planning and Development, and that of Academic Affairs to persons in acting capacities.

Shortly after the CS announced the appointments, the University Council rejected the names of three DVCs arguing she had bypassed names of candidates who had emerged top in the interviews conducted between January 7 and January 9. The council swiftly sought an advisory opinion from Attorney-General Kihara Kariuki’s office arguing that Amb Mohamed had overstepped her mandate.

One particular statute that is source of the politicisation of public universities, and a grave danger to university autonomy, suggests that the university council can only interview, and recommend three names from which the CS picks one.

Drive academic mission

Accordingly, the CS can select any of the three for each position factoring gender, ethnicity and regional balance. However, one would assume that academia is an arena where academic merit and one’s research profile trumps such considerations as one’s ethnic extraction or gender. While arguments coming from CS office regarding her decisions sound convincing, and might actually be constitutional, the most important factor in academic leadership is the capacity to drive the academic mission of the university. Importantly, the ministry should also not be seen as ‘matronising’ universities.

It is only in illiberal, paranoid states where the political class is still obsessed with making university appointments. For universities and academic life to flourish, academic freedom and university autonomy must be nurtured. Our ‘state-driven’ model is dysfunctional and has left a trail of court cases, toxic power struggles and unnecessary distractions in at least ten public universities. The leadership row at the University of Nairobi has only given publicity to a broader governance crisis.

A recent Bill being forwarded by the Majority Leader Aden Duale seeks to relocate the mandate of appointing Vice Chancellors to the Public Service Commission. This will roll back the little gains in higher education and completely snuff-out any hope of university autonomy. The VCs will be more or less marionettes of the executive. Such a move is reflective of the poverty of leadership both at the House, and the national level, where by all accounts, higher education has scarcely featured as a substantive issue of national concern except when it is bullied to doll out suspicious qualifications to politicians. Or when patrons need to reward clients with senior university appointments.

The other level of governance in desperate need of reform are the councils. Prof Michael Faborode, a former Vice Chancellor of Ibadan, and one of the most successful VCs in the continent, argues that the integrity of Councils is central to rejuvenation of African universities. The structural composition in Kenya, made up largely of appointees of the state, compromises any chance of ‘integrity’.

According to the visitation panel report to the University of Ghana (legon), current best practices for councils comprise between 15 to 30 members, with a lay (external) majority of about two-thirds to one third, with a significant proportion of the lay majority brought on to the governing body through a nominations committee process to ensure that there is expertise in areas such as finance, property management, legal matters, and human resource management.

Accountability is best exercised by a lay majority whose members include people with these professional qualifications. In addition, representation to the council should include members drawn from the senate, alumni (convocation) and the congregation. Current university councils in Kenya are comprised of a mix of desirable and undesirable political appointees-often an assortment of careerists, tenderpreneurs, sponsors and man-eaters, money lenders- outnumbering the bunch of good men and women there. The composition of councils must seize being the prerogative of the executive. It is archaic and backward for the state to be encumbered with appointing VCs, let alone DVCs. University autonomy and research excellence are inseparable. This point was driven home through a statement by former University of Cape-Town (UCT) VC, Prof Max Price regarding university governance in South Africa. ‘I think one of the strengths of the South African higher education system is that universities have huge autonomy.

Research excellence

Autonomy from government and from outside interference. For example, only four or five members of UCT’s council are appointed by government, with the rest from other constituencies: internal, students, alumni, convocation, donors, industry etc. That gives us a whole lot of autonomy. There is no political interference or political say in appointment of vice-chancellors… And that lifts up the whole country. It educates the academics for the rest of the country.”

The inference we can draw here is that the excellence of a university is directly related to how far removed political and state interference is from the direct affairs regarding governance of the university. 

Going back to the University of Nairobi leadership row, the University Academics Union (Uasu) missed an opportunity to be silent, and by taking sides in the controversy, exhibited an unsurprising lack of foresight. According to newspaper reports, the Nairobi Chapter of Uasu argued that the institution is tired of conflicts and asked the council to accept the appointees.  

The union cheered on the Cabinet Secretary enthusiastically reminding everyone that the law protected her from picking whomever she pleased from the names forwarded to her. While on paper Uasu seems right, one would have expected the union to use the occasion to speak to broader issues of university autonomy, and to remind the CS that in countries where higher education is taken seriously, such appointments are left to the councils.

Increasingly, since Uasu wrestled and pinched a measly, pitiable Sh53 increase from the state after an embarrassing strike peppered with loud chest-thumping and sloganeering, various chapters have become weaponised as instruments for intra-university power struggles. The much-cherished vison of yore that founded Uasu as a union sympathetic to progressive reform, social justice and academic mission has been displaced by careerism and profiteering.

For Uasu to regain respect, there can be no short-cut than to require that access and claims to its leadership be linked to solid academic credentials, a distinguished research profile and a commitment to ‘the profession’. For as long as Uasu leadership is a sanctuary of ‘deadwood’ academics, nothing much will come from there.

-The writer teaches at Moi University, Eldoret

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Education Cabinet Secretary Amina MohamedUniversity Academics Union