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Four key decisions to consider as universities wait out the pandemic

By Duncan Omanga | August 8th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Some of the screens showing the virtual congregation during the 42nd Egerton University Graduation Ceremony. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard]

Two significant events affecting higher education in Kenya happened at the end of July.

In the first, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha announced that a planned reopening of colleges and universities in September would not be possible.

That face-to-face learning would resume in 2021. Good call.

Earlier, a similar decision was made to suspend primary and secondary schooling until January 2021. The decision to suspend opening of schools and the exams elicited varied debates, but ultimately it was the best decision in a context where the world is confronted with a pandemic that is still not fully understood by scientists.

Further, the decision was largely fair, as a decision to open schools runs the risk of deepening the social inequalities in performances in national exams, besides exposing pupils to risk. While private schools switched to online learning, public schools have not moved an inch since March.

Covid 19 Time Series


Regarding colleges, technical institutes and universities, the CS observed that a survey of all teacher training colleges, universities and TVET institutions has shown that few of them have put in place necessary measures to comply with the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 protocols. He however advised that universities should continue offering virtual learning, virtual examinations and virtual graduations in strict adherence to quality measures set by the Commission for University Education (CUE).

In the second event, in a mostly virtual graduation for Egerton University, the CS told vice-chancellors to start planning on how to relieve non-core and other excess staff of their duties to survive the cash crunch. He said this after the VC, Rose Mwonya, requested him to help the university overcome the financial crisis that had seen it slash staff salaries by 40 per cent.

Half salaries

Egerton University is not the only public university that has slashed salaries. Sources actually indicate that several universities may be forced to pay half salaries from as early as September if the current situation persists. There is no denying that Covid-19 is probably the most consequential crisis universities in Kenya have faced since the collapse of liberalisation and private paying studentships in higher education.

The current crises could not have come at a worse time. There has been a cash flow crisis long before the pandemic as universities just paid salaries and only met the bare minimum overlays. Staff morale was at its lowest, and more qualified students were opting for private universities and other colleges. Admissions have been on a steady decline. But the ongoing pandemic and its attendant crisis should prompt universities and key stakeholders to reach out for a reset. 

The first decision that needs to be considered is to split the Ministry of Education and create two separate ministries -- one focused on education and the other on higher education. This has to come from the Executive level and the appointing authorities.

Since the jubilee government captured power in 2013, higher education has received a backseat - often constituted as expensive, crises laden and of low political value. Meanwhile, hefty resources have been directed in playful experimentation in primary schools. The fact that our education system is examination heavy means that much of the CS’s time is consumed in primary and secondary education and the issues that affect those levels. Many of the ministry’s noble intentions like university merges and higher education reform are unlikely to kick-off due to a loaded in-tray from the lower sectors.

The second decision that would need to be undertaken as we confront the pandemic is to have an honest debate and resolution of the staffing crisis in the universities. There is a contradiction here. While universities are understaffed at the most pivotal and ‘frontline’ academic staff, they are bloated at the administrative front. According to reports, for every academic staff there are three to four administrative staff. As academic staff log in time teaching, grading and supervising students on internet-based platforms-effectively grinding the economic mills, it is dawning on universities that a large portion of its administrative wing is peripheral and non-essential. Many there will earn salaries for almost a year without lifting a leg. 

A staff rationalisation is inevitable if universities are to retain basic liquidity. The time to rationalise labour is now, but this has to be properly funded and well thought through. It should not be left to VCs and councils to lead as the CS appeared to indicate. In any case, much of the staff bloating is the handiwork of VCs and plaint councils who saw universities as employment bureaus.

The third important decision for universities as they wait the pandemic out is to keep the frugality and pragmatism occasioned by Covid-19. No one predicted that graduations would one day be virtual events. For long, graduations have been the most overrated events in a university calendar-full of ostentatious preparations, humongous logistics, even as they are grossly disruptive and focused on celebrating everyone but the graduand.

It is time to consider simpler, convenient and practical graduation events and Covid-19 shows that it is possible. This also includes other mundane but expensive meetings that could easily be held online. Council meetings had transformed what were previous honorary advisory roles into platforms of careerism.

Hybrid models

Graduate students have often suffered for lack of ‘quorum’ to constitute dissertation panels. Hopefully, hybrid models may be considered to allow academics unable to physically travel to check in, online.

Finally, and possibly most important, is for public universities to make the decision to adopt not just technology, but the culture requisite to make technology work. While several universities give digitality and virtual systems lip service, there is still ambivalence and embedded indifference to technology.

Basic things like e-mail communications are still considered non-official and treated with flippancy. Many university staff do not consider replying to emails a serious part of their vocation. In the odd situations when replies are made, they are abrupt and discourteous. It is not enough to have technological and virtual systems, decisions also have to be made within our universities that virtual spaces and technologies are not just separate workspaces, but essential aspects of everyday work.

- Dr Omanga works for the Social Science Research Council in New York. The views expressed here are his own.

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