State, students could have spared city ugly scenes

Kenya: While issuing a strike threat to protest an increase in university fees, student leaders warned motorists to keep off certain key roads within Nairobi and even had the audacity to ask motorists to leave their vehicles at home.

Predictably, students from the University of Nairobi poured into city streets to hold what they called a peaceful demonstration. Their counterparts from the Technical University of Kenya stoned vehicles along Haile Selasie Avenue, causing panic and commotion. The city was emptied of traders and buyers.

The genesis of the strike were press reports attributed to Education Cabinet Secretary Prof Jacob Kaimenyi that university fees would be raised in September.  On the eve of the impending strike, Prof Kaimenyi denied that the Government had raised university fees. This signals a breakdown in communication.

So who is to be believed?

The grievances of the students are understandable; that education is being priced out of the reach of a majority of Kenyans who are poor; and that attempts to seek redress with the Government have been met with stony silence.

They believe, and rightly so, that skimping on tertiary education is like building the country’s future on shifting sands. More funds are needed for university coursework and for research and development.  The students cite examples from across the world like Scotland where tuition fees for undergraduate students is heavily subsidised. Or Germany, where federal universities charge nil for undergraduate studies.

The Kenyan system is largely borrowed from the United States, where tuition fee rates are among the highest.  But the system has not been reviewed to give consideration to prevailing economic realities. Capitation to universities and colleges as demanded by the students should be increased to mirror current economic realities.

The loans advanced through the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) should be adjusted to take care of inflation and the cost of living. Often, to supplement their income, students have turned their halls of residence into markets trading in all kinds of ware. This affects course work, with most playing truant a day or two to go to the market. There have also been claims of students engaging in prostitution and other vice to raise pocket money. That should not be the case.

What is more, there was a time, long ago, when University of Nairobi Students’ Organisation (Sonu) was used to agitate for social change. In those days, there was limitation on the freedom of speech, expression and assembly, a matter that has been taken care of in the 2010 Constitution. Simply put, the world has moved on the decidedly unbecoming conduct by these supposedly erudite members of the society has no place in the 21st century.

Gone are the days when university students uprooted flower stands and traffic lights or stoned motorists to pass a message. The show of brawn does not fit well in the modern world where brain muscle is much more useful.  Neither does the maladroit way in which the security teams handle the strikes, nor the way the ministry wants to pass the buck. 

A group of students cannot call a press conference where they announce that they plans to paralyse activities in the capital city and no one high up thinks of a better way to contain them within their university compound. After all, serried ranks of officers have cordoned off public space and buildings before.