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107 unpopular varsity programmes face the axe in review

By Protus Onyango | April 16th 2019
A Student in an empty Egerton University class in 2018. No learners were enrolled for 107 courses with a capacity of 6,721 students across universities. [File, Standard]

Some 107 university programmes are on the chopping block because they either did not attract applications or no student was selected to pursue the degree courses considered uncompetitive.

For nine of the degree programmes, there were no applications from students who sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam last year, and in the remaining 98, no student was enrolled for the degree courses spread across 50 universities. The programmes have a collective capacity of 6,721 students.

It is such worrying statistics that prompted Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha to direct the Commission for University Education to review the programmes to consolidate and scrap those that are unnecessary.

"There are many programmes in our universities that fail to attract a single student. This situation must be addressed. The Commission for University Education must conduct a thorough analysis of these courses with a view to addressing this shocking scenario, including a review and scrapping of such programmes," said Prof Magoha.

Magoha, who said the universities were at "crossroads" called for merger of university campuses and a freeze on establishment of new ones. He also encouraged debate on the quality of teaching and the adverse effects of rapid expansion of the institutions. 

Thousands of teaching jobs are at stake in the looming shake-up with the inevitable axing or merger of some programmes.

Similarly, the CS said it was unfortunate that the bulk of university employees were non-teaching staff--pointing to possible layoffs among these employees to reduce the wage bill. Academic staff constitute only 30 per cent of workforce in many institutions.

While announcing a raft of measures to improve university education, Magoha told university managers to back the proposals or lose their jobs. 

“Time has come when we must hold candid discussions about the quality of leadership, teaching and research in our universities. Having been a manager at the University of Nairobi for 10 years, and having observed the sector now for four years, I feel compelled to state that our university sector is at a crossroads,” Magoha said when he released the 2019-2020 universities and colleges placement cycle results yesterday.

Reform trajectory

Speaking at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Nairobi, the CS said it was time universities woke up to the reality of the issues that have put university education in jeopardy.

“What is a university? Do we still define and conceptualise it in the way it should be? That we just don’t teach but also do research. Have we allowed our intellectual capacities to sleep and allowed other people to drive them?” he posed. 

To steer universities on desired reform trajectory, Magoha said the Government would rationalise academic programmes and institutions in Kenya to ensure full potential of the existing universities and campuses.

“If possible, existing universities and campuses can be consolidated for maximum utilisation. The freeze on establishment of new universities and satellite campuses must be upheld and similar academic programmes consolidated to efficiently utilise and maximise on existing resources.”

Magoha said his ministry would ensure that universities specialise in academic programmes they are relatively strong in.

“Universities should cut their niches. Henceforth, come to me and ask for full funding of relevant courses. Why is Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) teaching economics when we know its niche is engineering?"

The CS also called for strengthening of academic programmes that greatly contribute to the national and global development agenda through increased provision of resources, including finances, facilities, equipment, infrastructure and human resources.

He said higher education in the country is in crisis some good universities have been run down.

“We must now open up a debate focusing on the critical issues of sustainability of the public and private universities in view of the increasing demands and the need to prioritise expenditure, determination of suitable funding and staffing models for the sustainability of universities,” Magoha said.

He asked vice chancellors to be at the front line in effecting the Government’s order on the freezing of recruitment of new staff and the need to rationalise universities with the view of restoring and preserving their credibility.

“Universities need to right size. Many universities have academic staff who only constitute 30 per cent of the entire workforce. We can’t have staff being paid public funds who are not adding value. Fire them, get the right academic staff and send those you think are good but lack the qualifications back to school,” he said.

The CS said the country must discuss the unplanned expansion of universities with most institutions fighting to establish campuses in all corners of the country.

“We must match the spiralling growth of university education with commensurate rise in the level of funding, facilities and other resources,” Magoha said.

University mandate 

He noted that most public universities hire most of their staff on permanent and pensionable terms.

 “In some cases, the percentage of non-technical staff has been much higher than that of the technical staff, indicative that majority of the budget is utilised on activities that do not necessarily contribute to the mandate of the university,” Magoha said.

He proposed that the institutions explore and adopt other models.

“Such models include outsourcing of non-technical functions and having fixed tenure-tracks of employment of staff. Councils of the public universities must develop policies that govern the most suitable staffing models that will result in optimal returns in the respective universities,” Magoha said.

He threatened to dissolve councils that do not add value to the universities.

“I have interviewed PhD holders who can’t defend their certificates. I am forced to interview them on their master's degree qualification which they are also unable to defend. I am forced to ask them to use their bachelor's degree. Get the right people into universities not necessarily PhD holders who offer nothing,” said Magoha.

He noted that a circular from the National Treasury dated November 4, 2015 directed a “freeze on new recruitment, purchase of office furniture, computers and new office equipment”.

“Another circular from the Office of the President, dated July 28, 2017, reiterated the content of the former circular, directing that “…henceforth, no recruitment of any new staff should be undertaken unless in exceptional circumstances and with the approval of this office,” he said.

He called on vice chancellors to de-ethnicise universities to ensure they reflect the national face of the country. He said some have up to 50 per cent of their staff drawn from one community. “If you manage such an institution, close it before we come for you."

The CS said some universities are established too close to each other. "We can’t have 15 universities in a stretch of 30 square kilometres. Since I took office, I have received 10 university applications mostly from politicians. I have not granted them the chance.”

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