PSC rushes to fill university posts as law change looms

Education cabinet Secretary George Magoha with Maseno University chancellor Julius Nyabundi during the 20th graduation ceremony at the Institution on April 30, 2021. (Collins Oduor, Standard)

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is rushing to clear a backlog of vacancies in senior positions at public universities.

This comes ahead of a law change that will soon take away PSC’s recruitment powers in institutions of higher learning.

The commission has this week been interviewing shortlisted candidates for the posts of vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and college principals. Some of the positions have remained vacant for more than a year.

Seven universities have been operating with 15 vacant posts, although the system of recruitment is clear.

Though the vacancies have been run by officials appointed by university councils to act pending substantive appointments, this has led to complaints on inefficiencies and lack of independence in making decisions and enforcing policy.

“What the PSC is doing is fine but I think they should move with greater urgency to keep our universities running smoothly, especially in this Covid-19 era. There is no reason at all why these positions should remain vacant for so long,” said University Education and Research Principal Secretary Simon Nabukwesi.

Last year’s amendment of the Universities Act 2012, took away the powers of university councils to advertise, interview and recommend candidates for vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, principals and deputy principals.

Before the amendment, the appointments were made by the Education Cabinet secretary upon recommendation by the councils.

The amendment, which was approved by President Uhuru Kenyatta in January last year, instead vested the recruitment powers on the PSC and authorised it to begin the process once the universities had declared the vacancies.

The commission was mandated to shortlist, interview and recommend the top candidates to the institutions’ councils and the Education CS for appointment.

However, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha last year petitioned the Cabinet to give him back the recruitment powers and a Bill was prepared to that effect, although it is yet to go through the motions in Parliament.

Prof.George Magoha at Mitihani house along Dennis Pritt Road in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The Universities Act (Amendment) Bill 2020 reverts the hiring powers to the Cabinet secretary and is pending debate and approval or rejection in Parliament.

“Where a vacancy occurs in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor or Deputy Vice-Chancellor of a public university or Principal or Deputy Principal of a constituent college, the Cabinet secretary shall constitute a selection panel to conduct the recruitment,” the Bill says.

Recruitment powers

The selection panel will be tasked with advertising vacancies, vetting and forwarding three names to the CS who will pick one candidate. 

“The panel shall regulate its own procedure. The CS shall upon receipt of the names forwarded appoint a candidate from any of the three qualified applicants. And the selection panel shall stand dissolved after the appointment of a candidate,” the law says. 

Dr Nabukwesi, who has been fighting for the recruitment powers to be handed back to Jogoo House, citing “unnecessary bureaucracy and incompetence”, says PSC should not wait for the law change process to run its course.

“Our only interest is to have the universities running smoothly, so it’s alright for them to use the existing procedure to go ahead and make the appointments. In future once the change-over is complete, we should never have people acting in positions for longer than is strictly necessary,” he says. The University of Nairobi has been without two deputy vice chancellors (DVCs) for Finance and Human Resources.

The interviews to fill the posts were conducted yesterday and Thursday.

Kenyatta University has no substantive DVC for Academics and Student Affairs, while Moi lacks a principal for the College of Health Science and a DVC for Finance.

Laikipia University has no DVC for Academics, Research and Student Affairs and one for Administration and Finance, while Egerton is without two DVCs (Administration and Planning, and Research and Extension). Egerton also lacks a substantive principal for its Nakuru Town Campus.

At Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, the commission is in the process of recruiting all three DVCs – Finance, Academics and Planning – while Kaimosi Friends University College has no deputy principal in charge of academic affairs.

Masinde Muliro University gate. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

While officials in an acting capacity are usually qualified and conversant with the given roles, the temporal nature of their authority and the fluidity of their roles denies them the confidence, creativity and drive to make a difference or leave a positive impact.

According to Dr Richard Bosire of the University of Nairobi, having an acting DVC or college principal for a long time only engenders inefficiency, sycophancy and sloppiness.

“Those in acting positions live in fear of making big decisions because they are beholden to their bosses. They lack commitment because they know they hold those roles as a stop-gap measure,” says Dr Bosire, a lecturer in Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Nairobi.

“They are also haunted by the fact that their perceived lack of merit in the office means their peers and even juniors don’t respect them and neither do they defer to them.”

- The writer is a consulting editor. [email protected]