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Dons excel as TV political pundits, ignore rot in varsities

EDUCATION
By Wesonga Robert | May 22nd 2021
Most TV stations have assigned these specialist dons days and hours to appear. [Courtesy]

A few days ago, a friend remarked that there were university dons who show up on national TV as experts on all manner of things.

Apparently, my friend said, these ‘specialists’ talk on issues ranging from polygamy, locust invasion, inflation, the Israel-Palestine conflict to Kenyan politics which is their favourite subject.

They appear daily on TVs at Prime Time in worn-out suits, or African wear of some sort. Of course, looking important is part of the act before these ‘learned friends’ proceed to pummel a hapless audience with arguments on all manner of topics.

They philosophise and moralise why a politician or the other shall win or lose.

To increase their sense of importance, most of our national TV stations have even assigned these specialist dons days and hours to appear.

They gesture and frown methodically as they act as political advisors pro bono.

Admittedly, this magnanimous idea of dishing out unsolicited advice, has earned a good number of these dons a rare trot from the lecture hall to the corridors of power but that is a story for another day.

Curiously, these schooled colleagues of have never shown interest in sounding learned on matters of academia.

These professors, and a good number of them are indeed professors, will validly argue that their many years of learning and teaching has allowed them to gain knowledge on a variety of issues.

That being professor involves philosophising and weighing in on a wide range of disciplines. Granted, a professor is expected to know a bit of something in everything and everything in something.

What is worrying is how our TV superstar dons go missing when it comes to critical matters that afflict the education sector.

Conveniently, or otherwise, they have ignored the job of weighing in on matters education to talk about politicians, trade unionists, ministry officials and news reporters.

This disengagement not to discuss issues in the education sector by these crucial players must be cause for alarm.

What is worrying is how our TV superstar dons go missing when it comes to critical matters that afflict the education sector. [Courtesy]

This space has in the recent weeks lent its voice to the issues of financing in university education and the relevance of training regimes relative to the needs of the job market.

Although UASU, the dons’ union has had hesitant engagement on the matters, the voice of the regular don has been missing.

This is ridiculous considering that besides students, universities’ teaching fraternity stands at a great disadvantage if the problems in the higher education sector are not addressed.

For two decades now, we have remained silent and become witnesses to the disappearance of specialisations in universities.

This started with the emergence of the ‘capital mentality’ in our public universities. At the turn of the century, universities started competing for students the same way kiosk operators compete for customers.

As a result, Kenya has become one of the countries on the continent with the highest number of dysfunctional university campuses. It applies to both private and public institutions.

In the name of capitalist ideals such as neoliberalism, free-market economy and the call from government urging varsities to come up with income-generating activities, these institutions of higher education morphed in to ‘teaching factories’ designed to ‘churn out’ human resource for the growing job market.

That is how we have come to lose what these institutions had gained over the years. For them to be renown, a lot of work focusing on research in specific disciplines such as education, agriculture, medicine, business and engineering, had been put in for many years.  

In China for instance, there are universities designed for specific disciplines.

In the city of Tianjin, there is Tianjin Normal University which is education-based while others are Tianjin Medical University, Tianjin University of Foreign Studies and Tianjin University of Science and Technology.  

In the last ten years, we have seen universities that lack hospitals or labs for practicals offering medical or engineering courses.

In some cases, students have graduated with degrees only to be denied accreditation by professional bodies because their training did not meet the threshold.

As university dons, it is tempting to think that this mushrooming of institutions is beneficial to us. Indeed it has been correct (not right) to think that way, until the Ministry of Education started cracking down on certain universities and campuses, making job cuts imminent.

They gesture and frown methodically as they act as political advisors pro bono. [Courtesy]

Suffice it to say that of all the ingredients needed to make an institution to function optimally, especially an educational institution, human resource is the most important.

That a workforce, which is considered central to the existence of an institution could allow itself to be debased and abused is not only ridiculous but also tragic.

The expansionist mentality, in an endeavour, to attract a high number of customers has had its visible downside. Predictably, it’s the very dons who have let the situation go on unabated that have become victims.

We have kept quiet, sometimes because we are angling for positions in some of these mushrooming campuses. We have failed to see how we turned ourselves into an opportunity cost and the interests of the dons have been overlooked by university managements in favour of seemingly more pressing issues.

The growth in the number of public institutions, without a corresponding increase in the number of lecturers hired by the government, led to the emergence of a new breed of a don, the part-time lecturer.

Subsequently, institutions have been sourcing them either internally or externally. Naturally, dissatisfaction with the pay has driven many lecturers to take up part-time teaching. This brought about the aspect of moonlighting in the sector. 

University managements have insisted on keeping unsustainable campuses and constituent colleges at the expense of the welfare of the teaching staff. Whereas it has been impossible to avoid footing bills for utilities, it has been found more convenient to forego paying lecturers for part-time teaching.

The logical result is that as of now, all public universities owe lecturers hundreds of millions of shillings in part-time teaching dues, yet they still expect quality from the unpaid lot.  That the dons, who find space in the media, are so silent is not a good story. Some will say that they are just minding their own businesses and engaging in ‘side hustles’ incase the university job cease to exist. For the sake of posterity, the teaching fraternity must speak.

They must speak even when they imagine that those who should listen are not listening. They should shout about these issues. Even where, as dons we should not shout or scold, let us speak “with all the humility that is consistent with our limited vision”, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

On matters education, I daresay, our vision cannot be as limited as it is.

There are times when every monkey is expected to remain on its branch, especially at night when monkeys retire from foraging. Even for those who manage to keep poultry without their appetites inspiring mass slaughter, there are times when the chickens return home to roost. At this time, each bird stays on its perch.

Similarly, even though we won’t stop TV politicking dons from expressing themselves, we will not be asking too much if we tell them to spare some time and talk about problems in their profession. 

— Dr Wesonga is a lecturer in Literature at University of Kabianga  - Kericho 

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