Universities merger necessary, but we need to start right

Graduands at Maseno University during the 18th graduation on December 21,2018. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)
Merger will be akin to taking a painful but mandatory pill, university bosses to be casualties

Magoha should be careful not to rush the process as mergers cost time and money. 

The Higher Education sector is gripped by a spirited discussion on the possibility of merger of universities and colleges.

A few days ago, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha directed vice chancellors to begin the merger on their own or risk being forced to. 

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Academic culture is dead, many campuses are insolvent, tens of others cannot justify their existence beyond ethno-parochial imperatives. For these, and many more, mergers offer advantages that come with the economies of scale. Universities merger in Kenya is inevitable.

To restore dignity to higher education, this discussion is urgent. On their part, VCs have rightly called for more consultation and participation. The merger will be akin to taking a painful but mandatory pill, and among the casualties will be university bosses who will obviously forfeit lofty status.

The universities’ union have opposed the process, fearing job cuts, and an unpredictable staff rationalisation. This is partly true, but an adversarial posture by unions will blunt their influence in a process where their voice is required. A governor has termed the proposals for university merger as ‘backward’.

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Best practices

Kenya will not be first country to initiate universities mergers. To enhance efficiency and make the most of their resources, tiny Rwanda spearheaded a universities merger that created the present University of Rwanda in a collegiate system. In South Africa, years of racial inequity, and a clamour for social justice pushed the state to call for the merger of universities.

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University of KwaZulu Natal made the most of the synergies by vastly improving on its global university ranking. Between the year 2000-2012, Estonia cut its number of higher education institutions from 41 to 29. The University of Tallin in the country’s capital absorbed eight smaller institutes and colleges. The Nordic countries of Finland, Norway and Denmark have all recently initiated mergers. In Denmark, the number of universities was reduced from 12 to eight and government research centres integrated into the university sector. In mainland Europe, the University of Paris, a collection of 12 faculty units operating as near autonomous campuses, and the highly regarded Sorbonne are in the process of being merged.

However, there are a few best practices that the ministry needs to keep in mind. While most of universities mergers are often initiated by the state, they are more successfully when driven by the universities themselves. Mergers should not be forced.

It takes several years to realise the financial benefits of university mergers. And before starting off the merger, we need to ask ourselves what nobler ideals do we seek to achieve in merging universities beyond merely cutting costs? What kind of higher education model and culture do we really want?

Is it more prudent to craft a tiered system where the bigger, older universities are transformed into research intensive universities, and others become teaching universities? Do we seek broad based universities or develop thematic ones? Should we remunerate academic labour on individuated models based on research profiles or continue the current model of CBAs? The answers to these questions will determine the success of the planned mergers.

Secondly, before discussions of mergers reach an advanced stage, it is important that universities first resolve their internal contradictions. One of the reasons for universities mergers is to eliminate duplication of programmes. In our case, the problem of intra-university duplication lingers. The legacies of neoliberal reforms in universities and the concomitant inter-departmental competition spawned a scandalous duplication of programmes within universities that is yet to be dealt with. These programmes must be harmonised, and some scrapped, before any meaningful merger process begins.

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Importantly, proper merger will be more meaningful if universities begin by shutting voluntarily satellite campuses, especially those outside reasonable geographical locus of their main campuses. A merger reflects two or more previously separate institutions into one new single institution, which may retain the name and legal status of one of them or be an entirely new legal entity. Are we ready to navigate the heat that will come with dealing with entrenched identities, diverse institutional cultures and vested political interests?  In countries where mergers of institutions of higher learning has succeeded, identity politics and politicians are kept at a distance. 

Also, mergers should pay attention to geographical distance. It is far more practical to merge Kisii and Rongo universities than Rongo with Maseno, despite all the hullabaloo on regionalism. 

A successful merger should pay attention to complementarity and enhancing horizontal relationship as opposed to vertical relationships. It is much easier to merge the STEM based University of Eldoret with the broad-based Moi University since both share a strong research culture and institutional identity, as opposed to merging the University of Nairobi with the former polytechnics (say Technical University of Kenya).

Strong leadership

Universities with no discernible academic ‘character’ or ‘niche’ like many in the South Rift, the former Central and Eastern provinces are better off collapsed with the established universities. Importantly, successful mergers require strong transformational ‘academic and administrative’ leadership. Academic feather-weights occupying powerful administrative positions now face a certain baptism of fire.  

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Meanwhile, Magoha should be careful not to rush the process. Mergers cost time and money. But the results are worthwhile. University mergers lead to more efficient administrative units, improves academic cultures, research collaborations and universities ranking, and cuts off unnecessary competition.

But beyond cutting costs, merged universities give more breadth and choice to their students.

- Dr Omanga is a Senior Lecturer, Moi University.

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