Teaching staff turning into mere labourers in universities

Kisii University staff sing a solidarity song at the university's main campus graduation square on March 19, during the lecturers' ongoing strike. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Once thought to be a quiet revolution, the consumer-driven model of financing university education in Sub-Saharan Africa has given rise to a robust academic capitalism thriving on cheap labour of part-time lecturers, tutorial fellows and other easily disposable academics. 

Adopted largely from Makerere University’s reforms of the late 1990s, the new vision has redesigned African universities into satisfied student-customer corporate entities, irrespective of whether those students have academic capacity to learn and benefit from higher education. 

According to Ishmael Munene, a professor of higher education leadership and research at Northern Arizona University, the emerging university market model has created academically disinterested audience whose main preoccupation is instantaneous value of their money. 

Basic truths

“This model ignores the basic truths about university education that the student may not be in a position to make the right judgment about what is available to learn, or even know that many of the benefits of education will only be evident long after one has graduated,” says Mr Munene.

In a new book he recently edited, ‘Contextualising and Organising Contingent Faculty: Reclaiming Academic Labour in Universities,’ Munene argues that instead of concentrating on teaching and scholarship as their core mandate, universities have nearly become a marketplace. 

In this regard, a clash of values in education curriculum has emerged as to what universities should teach and what should be the priorities between academic and vocational studies.

So far, one school of thought maintains that subjects such as secretarial studies, leisure and hospitality studies, entrepreneurship and small business management and a wide range of diploma and certificate courses have little to do with academic missions of flag-staff elite public universities. 

However, the second school of thought argues that all universities have a duty of driving a social agenda of updating vocational courses and making them professional.

Such courses are seen as part of the knowledge landscape and provide students with skills required in the job market. 

But whereas one may score points from whichever side in this curriculum debate, what is not in disagreement is that entry of market forces into academia has changed the equation of access, teaching, quality, governance, academic freedom and even general behaviour of students. 

Consequently, marketisation of higher education has shifted almost all powers of managing universities to administrators, while the teaching staff have become mere labourers. “The once-valued role of a shared governance in the ivory tower is dead,” says Munene. 

However, in the face of such radical transformation, universities in Sub-Saharan Africa and more so in Kenya, are heavily relying on non-permanent academics to execute their new found mandate.

Locally, such academics are classified as part-time or temporary lecturers, contract lecturers, tutorial fellows and graduate assistants.

Elsewhere, such cadres are also known as instructors, professors of practice, visiting professors or simply referred to as adjunct lecturers. 

Darling of university

Weighing on the issue, Daniel Sifuna, a professor of education at Kenyatta University and his associate Prof Ibrahim Ogachi, a senior programme officer at the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, (CODESRIA), say most non-permanent staff in Kenyan universities are not qualified to teach independently. Strictly speaking, most of those hired as part of the non-tenured teaching force do not  meet all the conditions for being classified as academics, as stipulated by different institutional and regulatory regulations,” say the two professors in a joint study, ‘Non-Tenured Academics and the Dilemma of the Academic Profession in Kenya Universities’.

The issue is that unlike in developed countries such as the US where universities have a large segment of their academic workers employed on non-permanent basis, Kenya does not have a reserve of qualified academic labour free floating and therefore available for hire. 

In local universities such cadres have no monthly remuneration but are paid at the end of a semester and after marking and turning in student grades. Such workers have no house allowance or health insurance and cannot belong to a labour union.

Amid efforts to minimise their financial uncertainty, those workers teach in multiple institutions including small colleges. 

Unfortunately, such workers have become the darling of university administrators, since they cannot withhold labour without contracts being withdrawn instantly.

In this regard, most universities seem to have withdrawn staff development programmes to the extent that the number of postgraduate students pursuing PhDs has remained too low. 

According to Sifuna, whereas PhD enrollments in public universities are still low, some private universities are not even offering any PhD level programmes.

Subsequently, the situation is not likely to improve taking into account that the Commission for University Education recently reversed its guidelines that required university lecturers should hold PhDs by end of this year. 

Detriment of quality

Commenting on the issue, Ogachi argues that in most universities, a PhD degree is no longer a requirement for a permanent academic appointment.

“In addition, publications are not important criteria for judging who should be promoted in some of the universities,” says Ogachi. 

No doubt what this means is that many of the academic workers that would not have qualified for university teaching positions, are doing so in large numbers to the detriment of quality.

Besides, although universities employ 16,000 regular academic workers – 50 per cent of who have PhD - there is a large cohort of part-time lecturers that are not part of the regular staff. 

Some in this group include full-time academics that opt to take part-time teaching in their institutions, especially where similar courses are offered in different departments.

In most public universities this is a new development that picked up with development of duplication of degree programmes and course units in order to attract more students.  

In effect, increased demand for internal part-time positions has silently led the universities to stop allocation of funds for staff development.

According to Sifuna, some departments are even reluctant to ask for more lecturers as it denies regular staff part-time teaching.

Hence, the aggressive harnessing of tuition fees to fuel growth of university education, no matter who is paying it just to get a degree has impacted negatively on university education in Kenya. 

So far, questions are already arising as to how sustainable is a university education model driven by the singular goal of a satisfied student-customer.

There are also indicators that paucity of doctoral holders in Kenya’s university education has led to poor quality of graduates.