What to do to end the crisis in universities

In a meeting with the parliamentary committee on education, the vice chancellors of public universities and top ministry of education officials deliberated on the crisis facing the institutions.

The education bureaucrats and vice-chancellors came up with proposals on how to address the problem. To the former, the solution is by initiating far-reaching cost cutting measures while to the vice-chancellors, increase of fees is a more viable path to take. Both concur on the need for funding to be scaled up.

On life-support

That public-funded higher education institutions are facing a monumental crisis is uncontestable. Most of these institutions are on life support systems. They are only operating because they are being supported by the Exchequer.

Their problem is both financial and managerial. We must accept that the issue is complex and can’t be solved through simplistic and knee-jerk approaches. For example, ncreasing fees is a good suggestion. The truth is that the fee charged is quite low. However, the levels of poverty and limited support from the Higher Education Loans Board means many students from poor backgrounds will be left behind.

Remember that the government has put in place measures which have impacted  retention, transition and completion rates across the education chain.

This must have a bearing on enrolment at the tertiary education level. Charging Sh48,000 per academic year will make many students to either fail to take up positions they have been offered or drop out before completing their courses. Many parents today even find paying the Sh16,000 annual fee too high.

Can universities establish viable business ventures? The answer to this question can be found in the annual Auditor General  reports. Mismanagement and corruption dominate the reports. If these institutions can not manage money from the exchequer well, will they be able to mount a successful business venture?

sticking to their forte

We should think of another way of generating money in our public universities. Why can’t we think of upping consultancies, research and forging partnerships with the private sector as an additional way of raising finance? At the risk of sounding traditional, I still feel that universities should still confine their mandates to their core duties which are teaching, research and community outreach. Done with zeal and perfection, these institutions will contribute their share to the nation’s development.

It is true that there are cases of a bloated workforce in some areas in our universities. However there are also cases of understaffing in some sectors. Before we think of laying off some staff, a thorough audit of staff and rationalization should be undertaken.

Once this has been done, then the idea of shedding off some staff can be considered. In doing this ,several factors should be put in place and the whole exercise be given a human face.

Where the problem lies

I doubt whether if a good send-off package is offered and the exercise is made voluntary to the targeted staff ,there will be any hurdle in people accepting the offer. We can also float the idea of early retirement alongside other inducements.

The peak of privately-sponsored student enrolment with the subsequent good cash flow to the public universities witnessed a rise in the establishment of several managerial positions. Most of these offices were created without serious thought. They were meant to reward cronies and quislings. Many are duplicating responsibilities.

A cursory scrutiny of the many directorates and schools in our universities reveals will confirm the issue of duplication. Interestingly some of these offices even have deputies whose duties are  not well defined. An audit should be done to chop off some of these redundant offices.

According to the education honchos ,the universities should mount viable market –driven programmes. Which are these programmes and what is the aim of university education? Why should we produce people with a Bachelors degree? Can’t somebody with a BA degree in history become a better manager than one who has done a degree in Human Resource management? The madness of demeaning some degrees is pedestrian.

Let us allow students to undertake courses of their interest. Moreover, in this information age it is creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving that is at the core of human development. This can be realised through many of the courses offered at our universities. The only thing we should do is to change our way of teaching and assessment. We should equally address the issue of lecturer/student ratio which is unmanageable in some programmes.

But are the issues raised above the only problems bedeviling our public universities? I beg to differ. First is the low morale of staff due to poor working conditions and terms of service.

Teaching facilities are old and dilapidated. There are no instructional resources yet a lecturer is expected to teach and deliver good results. The salaries are low and in some universities delays in their payment is the order of the day.

Blacklisted

Today the problem of non-remittances of statutory and other deductions from staff is a daily ritual. For some universities, their staff have been blacklisted by banks and even placed in the list of loan defaulters by the Credit Reference Bureau.

Then there is the problem of poor leadership. Of late we have had the opportunity to peep into what goes into the appointment of senior level staff at the public universities.The selection process is never transparent.Those lucky to get the positions have a challenge in promoting transformational leadership. This partly contributes to poor service delivery.

These issues explain the mess our public universities find themselves in today. To ameliorate the issue requires that the government increase capitation to the institutions; that HELB awards the students a maximum of the loan they require to finance their education; changes be made on appointment of managers at different levels and improvement be made on the facilities and resources.

In addition, steps be made to improve the conditions and terms of service of staff, excess staff be shed off humanely and more ways be made to address the issue of limited funds.

Dr Ndaloh is a curriculum and instruction expert at Moi University [email protected]

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