Improve public participation in mechanical budget making process

Political parties and politicians are letting Kenyans down. We should rescue our nation from what is essentially a perfunctory process of budget making which is very rich in form but completely bereft in content.

Agreed: the National Assembly has ample time to discuss the budget and, as representatives of the people, come out with a model of public expenditure that will progressively support the basic needs of the people and inspire development.

If there is one thing that the current budget making process does not produce it is these two: the budget scores zilch in the progressive support for basic needs and zero in inspiring social development. Political parties should rescue the situation and take the debate to the people to propose, through a more sound participation process, what would amount to a real people’s budget. Let me explain.

Three items in the budgetary allocation concern the people dearly: food production and distribution, health provision and education. Let me deal specifically with education today and look at the other two in subsequent weeks.

First of all I don’t understand why we kept basic education in the hands of the national government in our very progressive Constitution of 2010. How would Minister Jacob Kaimenyi and his officials in Nairobi know the condition of a primary school in Othoch Rakuom somewhere in southern Nyanza?

Ok, let us accept that he may have an official of his ministry posted to some town near Othoch Rakuom: but wouldn’t an official of the County Government do this job much better, and perhaps more efficiently given the more immediate need for accountability to those he serves? The current amateur attention being given to basic education is because the national government is undertaking a responsibility it cannot effectively handle in a political context which has changed, implying that this function should appropriately be given to county governments.

Secondly, accepted that higher education was rightly left in the hands of the national government; and here I want to refer to tertiary education and universities. But then, if you look at the present budget you will find that the universities are not faring any better and tertiary education is only thought of as a footnote.

It is as if the national government is completely ignorant of what the universities need. Just tell me something: What would Maseno or Pwani University do with Sh71 million in a year? What impact would such a sum have on the needs and requirements of the university in a year?

Let me speak about Maseno University which is in my county of Kisumu. Were the people to have been meaningfully involved in the budget making process from the word go, they would have told the government that Maseno is better off getting Sh750 million to ensure it sorts out problems in the medical school this year rather than keep on receiving a paltry Sh71 million annually for the next three years while Jubilee Alliance is in power.

A good medical school using Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital as a teaching and training facility will have an enormous impact on health delivery in Kisumu and surrounding counties. The current phenomenon where fourth year medical students have been idle for over a month calls for a proper visitation to Maseno University.

And part of the responsibility of the visitation should be to analyse the annual budgetary allocation to Maseno in the context of all public universities and provide a remedy.

The same newspaper which reported that Maseno University would receive Sh71 million also reported that a new public university is to be started in Gatundu. Please do remember that Kenyatta University, for all intents and purposes, can cover the university needs of Gatundu pretty effectively for the moment: especially when the same government is so short of funds that it can only give peanuts to already existing public universities.

Mind you, these universities admit students from all over the republic; hence you cannot tell me that students from Gatundu must, of necessity, be catered for by building a new public university physically in Gatundu before we properly develop and equip already existing ones.

Before allocating money to this and that university, the government should have a comprehensive understanding of where we are with public universities today: how many students we need to produce in which field of study within the next 20 years; how much we need to invest in each field of higher education; what are the research needs and imperatives and how can we capitalise on the comparative advantage of each university so that we don’t spread ourselves too thin.

But let me now turn to these existing public universities. Please, listen to me carefully; you are making funding matters worse by opening colleges, or academic kiosks, in every market place. If you want to engage in distant learning please go to the University of South Africa (UNISA) and see how this is done. You are making the work of the government very difficult by spreading yourselves too thin.

Your academic staff is running like headless chicken from one campus to the other trying to teach and cover syllabi in a mechanical and ineffective fashion. I don’t want to discourage you completely from opening up satellite campuses; some of them are necessary and well thought out. But quite a good number, opened by private universities as well, are irritants.

Universities have to be universities offering profound education and not just meeting requirements for doling out degrees. The basic need of Kenyans is knowledge to understand their environment and use this environment—physical and social—to meet their livelihood. This is where well-resourced scientific research comes in. There is something basically wrong when we have medical schools with no plans for doctoral and post-doctoral education. That is where the bulk of basic and applied research is to be found. That is where the advancement of knowledge in medical sciences resides. That is where medical scientists can discover and innovate so as to advance the frontiers of fighting known and unknown diseases.

Finally, not every university must offer courses in all disciplines. The University of California in San Francisco specialises in nothing but medical and related sciences. You cannot imagine the number of Nobel Laureates who have emerged from that citadel of learning over the years. Before the East African University system broke up, University College Nairobi was known for its specialty in engineering, Makerere was known for medicine and Dar es Salaam for law.

This is not to suggest that after the break up they should have continued to teach only these disciplines; of course not.

But while catering for other disciplines, the comparative advantage they had built should have been solidified and carried on rather than dissipating their members of faculty to fledgling universities springing all over and offering courses across the board without specialising in any.