Varsities job cuts, mergers in fresh funding changes

Grandaunts at Maseno University in 2018. Rotich sends strongest indication yet that government is keen to close some institutions of higher learning. [File, Standard]

Panic has hit staff and administrators of public universities after the National Treasury gave strong indications on higher education reforms, strengthening the recent firm resolve by Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha.

The implication of the announcement by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich on university reforms means the number of these institutions will reduce tremendously, with some major colleges converted into campuses. Academic programmes in some of the universities will be taught out and some courses dropped as some are transferred to institutions with strong niche in the respective programmes.

Inspired by the practice in the United Kingdom with University of London System, the US with California University System and in Rwanda where all universities were merged and placed under an umbrella University of Rwanda system, the government is keen to effect changes.

The import of this is looming reorganisation in higher education sector that will also result in job cuts as the government implements an ambitious reforms plan that would lead to serious rationalisation by the universities.

Critical stage

In the strongest indication ever that the reforms are imminent, the National Treasury, which holds the purse for universities funding, hinted at major changes saying the reforms are critical at this stage than ever before.

“…we will implement radical measures that will include merger or closure of some universities and campuses that are not able to sustain their operations against the number of students admitted or degree courses offered,” Rotich said.

He said the government will review all universities’ public financial and management systems and appraise ongoing projects with a view to restructuring them.

The statement fits into a reform plan started by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016 when he stopped further expansion of universities.

Uhuru had declared on October 7, 2016 a moratorium on establishment of new institutions of higher learning in Kenya, putting a freeze on any new applications for establishment of universities, constituent colleges or campuses for five years.

And this month, Magoha said he would oversee major reforms in the universities sector and instructed the Commission for University Education (CEE) to institute audits and file reports within 70 days.

Broadly, Magoha said the ministry would strive to push for sustainable higher education financing, strengthen TVET sub-sector, and oversee the set up of the Open University of Kenya and expansion of private higher education.

Part of the reforms, he said, would entail resource mobilisation for higher education, improving quality of education, access and relevance and strengthening research and technology transfer.

What is however causing more anxiety in universities was Magoha’s recommendation to these institutions to consider right-sizing and down-sizing of staff.

The push to downsize, reduce academic programmes and to shut redundant campuses has been a rallying call from top Ministry of Education officials since 2016.

A 2018 Commission for University Education (CUE) report supported calls to streamline universities operations.

“To guarantee relevance and quality in university education in Kenya while maintaining the access and equity so far achieved, the Commission recommends rationalisation of the number of programmes and the establishment of programme based centres of excellence,” reads the report.

The report prepared by CUE Chairman Chacha Nyaigoti and Secretary Mwendwa Ntarangwi also recommended the establishment of a Regional University System by merging universities. Most of the existing institutions become colleges or campuses of a limited number of main universities.

“The creation of these campuses from existing universities will pay attention to national development needs, relative value of existing infrastructure and resources, and regional balance,” reads the CUE report.

Arid lands

The CUE brief to the ministry said that in Mombasa, for instance, there could be a focus on marine ecology and oceanography and in Turkana, a focus on arid lands and oil studies, but all as colleges of one national university.

“The rest of the public universities that do not fit this model will be closed,” reads the report. The 11 page brief by CUE said: “Rationalisation of the universities and academic programmes through reduced number, leaving fewer universities with clear focus on specific academic fields will ensure prudent use of resources, quality, relevance and sustainability.”

The firm statement by National Treasury last week now means funding to some universities may be discontinued in the bigger reform agenda to check quality and control expansionist plans.

Universities are already reeling in deep financial crisis with some institutions unable to service debts and honour third party obligations.

Under the 2019/20 financial year, some Sh97.7 billion has been allocated to universities. Another Sh12.6 billion was allocated to Higher Education Loans Board (Helb).

Data from Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) revealed that 544 out of the 1,382 academic programmes admitted either none or not more than nine students.

This means that no more admissions may be done in some programmes after the students currently studying the unattractive courses complete their studies. The courses that have no students may be scrapped altogether while those with few learners may opt for consolidation by moving them to one institution.

Insiders in government said such a move will inevitably lead to redundancies as each course has as many lecturers as the number of units, backed by the necessary support staff.

Magoha already proposed to the universities to rationalise academic programmes with a view to ensure full potential of the ?existing universities and campuses are realised.

“If possible, existing universities and campuses can be consolidated for ?maximum utilisation,” Magoha said.

With the weighing in of the National Treasury, the Universities Funding Board (UFB) will return to the drawing board to decide which programmes will receive government funding.

“We cannot have all universities offering the same courses, getting the same funding. That funding model is fatal and it has to be stopped right now for the university system to survive,” Prof Magoha said during an event on state of Higher Education in Kenya.

This means even as 27,798 university workers push for higher pay and enhanced perks, they will also be seeking alternative employment opportunities, as job cuts will be inevitable.