Time for universities to have representatives in Parliament

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetangula at Parliament on July 5, 2023. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

In a world awash with vigorous agitation for equal rights by all sorts of special interest groups, my well-considered argument that the 31 public universities in Kenya need a collective legislative constituency might sound like just another case of recreational activism.

For indeed, the ever-expanding list of those aggrieved by perceived social marginalisation includes, as at present, more than 80 gender identities among them - hold your breath- 'neutrois' people who claim no gender at all, and 'omnigender', who assume any gender as occasion demands.

But university representation in Parliament, which has been practiced in the British Empire, England (1603 to 1950) Japan and elsewhere, assumes urgency when we are informed that university jobs are now "to go in drastic reforms" (Sunday Standard July 9).

This has come hot on the heels of the extremely consequential new funding model for public universities that caught many of them flat-footed as they struggled to prepare for the first Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) cohort.

As a result, there is a growing feeling that the institutions that train our nation's manpower are paying an inordinately steep price for largely being passive consumers of government policies that affect them.

The motivation for parliamentary representation of universities has been explained in various ways such as, "enabling men and women of special training and experience to form constituencies and [send] to Parliament representatives qualified to promote higher education and the advancement of science and learning not possible through the ordinary channels." And, "getting into [Parliament] men of science, men of scholarship, men of special and peculiar gifts quite alien from the ordinary working politician". Even currently in Rwanda, two members of the Senate are always elected by university staff.

The concept of an "ordinary working politician" might sound foreign to Kenya's political class which, in terms of remuneration and prestige, occupies a disproportionately lofty position, which tends to greatly devalue most other professions.

The irony of members of the county assemblies who inhabit the lowest rung on Kenya's political food chain enjoying higher clout and allowances than professors - those revered poster boys of the academic fraternity who often don outsized facial hair- has often been bitterly pointed out.

I am convinced that when highly-trained academics who are paid to think are sidelined in critical national discourses, the country loses a truly important opportunity. The great potential of these institutions is also grossly underutilised.

The voice of the Kenyan academics is weak. I will not be surprised to find the important idea I am offering free-of-charge in this article resurfacing elsewhere, repackaged and patented, and being hawked to the government for an arm and a leg by some suave 'briefcase consultant'!

For the record, most progressive countries have, unlike Kenya, desisted from equating their politics with immortality. According to the Daily Mail, numerous academic bosses in Britain, 80 of whom are university heads, earn considerably more than the prime minister, with the vice chancellor of Oxford, whose paycheque has been tripled since 1999, among those leading the pack.

The positive impact university scholars can have on national issues is seen in Isaac Newton, the great English scientist, both before and during his tenure as the MP for Cambridge University (1689 to 1702). He was a ringleader in the university's resistance to the "encroachments on its religious rights and traditions", especially the despotic attempt by King James II to confer an unprocedural MA to a Benedictine monk, an uncamouflaged first step towards converting Cambridge into a Catholic institution. These bitter confrontations ultimately sealed the fate of King James' regime.

Likewise, by having representatives inside Parliament, Kenyan universities could guarantee themselves a bigger say on all the government policies that affect them.

If we briefly forget the fierce intellectual militants who wrested the freedoms we enjoy today from previous regimes, we see that universities and the government have always had mutually beneficial symbiosis. This was evident in the development, by scholars, of critical policies for the nascent Kenyan state of the '60s and '70s, the growing of pest-resistant wheat varieties for the Ministry of Agriculture for years by Egerton University, among other instances.

Therefore, there is no better time than now, when Kenya is blessed with a scholarly president with a non-honoris causa PhD, to strengthen this relationship by creating a few slots in Parliament to be filled jointly by all public universities. This gesture will send a powerful, symbolic and rejuvenating message to the 'fountains of knowledge' that their core competencies of disseminating knowledge and researching are finally welcome in the corridors of power.

And whereas helping build the state does not necessarily mean acceding to all government ideas unquestioningly, universities should reciprocate by supporting the government with valuable, consultancy and non-partisan advice on policy, besides guiding national developmental priorities where needed.

All this cooperation can be transacted noiselessly and under the radar. Isaac Newton famously spoke only once during his term as MP for Cambridge, telling an attendant to shut a window!.