For the first time in the history of university student politics, an unusual quiet preceded election in public institutions this year. As the amended 2016 Universities Act that provided for electing student leaders through electoral colleges came into force, there was considerable deviation from the notorious heated campaigns of past years.
The introduction of voting through a handful of students (delegates) behind closed doors was just one in many changes. Universities also faced the peculiar oddity of enrolling fewer freshmen as performance in KCSE plummeted for two consecutive years.
University vice chancellors highlight some of the issues they faced this year.
Prof Francis Aduol: Drop in university enrollment was worrying
Out of the 135,000 vacancies that were declared across universities last year, only 70,000 positions were filled as performance in the 2017 KCSE dropped. For two consecutive years, universities have grappled with low numbers of students admitted to pursue various programmes.
While we expected to have at least 150,000 students scoring C+ and above in 2016, only 85,000 managed direct entry to university. Performance plunged even more in 2017 and in 2018 as universities saw an even lower enrollment of freshmen.
Only one private university that declared a vacancy of 100 students filled its vacancies by enrolling 101 students.
I know of a public university that received only for students after declaring vacancies across its five programmes. Only three universities; Multimedia University, Dedan Kimathi University and The Technical University of Kenya managed 90 per cent of all the vacancies they declared in 2018.
The low enrollment was terrible news across universities. A university can only declare 100 per cent vacancies if it has resources to cater for the students.
There is considerable loss if all the vacancies are not filled because they won’t be maximum return on investment. A university cannot sack its lecturers just because they don’t have a full class to teach. It has to keep on paying them even if they are only teaching a handful of students.
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The silver lining of it all, however, is the assurance from examiners that we are now only admitting credible grades into universities. There was concern in the past that students went to universities with grades that were not genuine.
But we can also only hope that more students will attain a C+ so that universities can start admitting more students. We hope that the shock of a new examination system and policies will ebb soon. [Prof Francis Aduol , Chairman of the Vice Chancellors Committee]
Prof Noah Midamba: Private universities had a window of opportunity
Public universities have long grappled with inadequate funding and strikes amid other challenges yet they continue to enroll students beyond their capacity. Many public university graduates have acquired mismatched skills and ended up jobless.
Public universities have also been blamed of following rigid administration criteria, which does not provide easy credit transferals between universities, or post-secondary institutions. The most affected have been the Technical and Vocational Education and Training programs.
The slow-paced release of funds by the government to universities too has also contributed to dilapidation and deterioration of infrastructure, thus poor learning environments in public universities.
This has, in turn, led to low morale of faculty and staff in these universities. All these challenges have continued to impact negatively on students who go through public universities and who find transition to job markets difficult.
Private universities have seized the opportunity and experienced tremendous growth within the last few years. Today, we have 35 private universities out of the 72 universities in Kenya.
It has been a great opportunity for private universities that offer smaller classes, pay special attention and respond quickly to students’ needs.
Most private universities offer a strong faith-based education, which facilitates a strong moral and ethical grounding. Additionally, they offer trimester education programs, which provide an option to complete education goals within three years.
They also assure students quality for their money as they experience few disruptions from strikes.
In 2011, I proposed to the government to establish a new entity that would facilitate placement of students according to their institutional and subject choices.
This idea, subsequently was included in the Higher Education Act of 2012, and implemented in 2016. In 2016 KCA University received 405 publicly-funded students who chose the university.
By 2018, the number of publicly funded students had risen to 1,800 students. [Prof Midamba is KCA University Vice Chancellor]
Prof Wilson Kipngeno: There was peace in universities
There was significant peace in universities this year following implementation of student elections through an electoral college as provided for under the Universities Amendment Act 2016.
The process, which started late 2017 and ended in 2018 was almost similar across all universities. University of Kabianga began their electioneering process in September 2017 with the appointment of Students Electoral Commissioners (SGC).
The VC, on recommendation of the Dean of Students and the Students Governing Counci, also appointed a returning officer to oversee the SGC elections. The exercise ended in June 2018 with the election and swearing into office of University of Kabianga Students Organisation.
Election of student leaders though an electoral college has been a success at Kabianga, and I think across all universities that implemented it for the first time this year.
This time, voting took a shorter time as opposed to when all students used to vote for each individual candidate. And due to smaller numbers involved, students for the first time knew who they were voting for.
The election for seven executive members was concluded in about three hours as opposed to the whole day that previous counting votes for the entire student body used to take. At Kabianga, we used to count votes for an entire night.
The electoral college system, however, has its faults that need to be looked into. It consists of a small number (of people) and may be prone to abuse when candidates vying for executive positions campaign at specific campuses as opposed to campaigning among the entire student body.
The limited number of executive positions also results in cut throat competition, which disadvantages the female gender. This is due to aggressiveness by the male gender which leaves them as the only contestants since the females shy away.
Gender parity was not achieved in both the SGC Executive and Electoral College. At Kabianga University, the sxecutive had only one female out of seven members while the Electoral College had ten females out of the expected 11.
Finally, and I know many universities can attest to this, there is no room for nomination to the executive which disadvantages the special groups as majority do not vie for positions. [Prof Kipngeno is University of Kabianga Vice Chancellor]
Prof Paul Zeleza: Low number of lecturers with PhDs a problem
The drop in enrollment due to low KCSE pass rates over the past two years affected both private and public universities. Additionally, there shortage of qualified faculty with terminal degrees.
As it is, only 34 per cent of the 18,000 faculty in the country’s 70 universities have PhDs. These are just a few in the pool of challenges we share with public universities.
Even then, the private university sector continued to grow in strength and public recognition. While private primary and secondary schools have long been recognised as an important part of the educational sector, and many are renowned for their high quality, the higher education sector was long monopolised by the public sector.
This is changing as private universities increase their numbers and enrollments, and rise in public perception of quality.
This is a positive development, as the country needs more universities and to increase its tertiary education enrollment ratio, which is currently around 11 per cent, which is below the continental average and far below the world average of about 38 per cent.
Providing private universities access to state resources by allowing them to compete for publicly sponsored students and public research funds is highly commendable.
It cannot be over-emphasised that students attending and faculty teaching at the private universities are predominantly national citizens and are no different from those in the public universities.
The needs for the country’s integrated, inclusive and innovative sustainable development are so huge that the distinction between private and public universities in terms of public policy and support is a luxury the country, and the continent for that matter, cannot afford.
We need all the educated and skilled human capital we can get from both private and public universities to turn our youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. [Prof Zeleza is United States International University-Africa University Vice Chancellor]
Prof Paul Wainaina: Office of career services will help students transition into the workplace
The government in June this year directed all universities to establish offices of career services to empower students to make right career choices.
During the launch, Kenyatta University was pointed out among three universities that run a fully working office of career services. At KU, Directorate of Career Development and Mentoring Programmes was established in 2006.
The directorate focuses on career development, mentorship and growing leadership skills.
Here at Kenyatta University, we have allowed other universities to benchmark activities the office runs, including organising career development seminars and lectures for students, organising on-campus recruitment workshops, allocation of mentors to students and regular one-on-one career counselling and mentoring sessions.
The office also facilitates students with attachment and internship letters of recommendation. It also equips students with job search skills, CV, cover letter writing and interview skills.
Going forward, this office should be the most important component of all universities. The office will be able to help students transition smoothly into the workplace, for instance, by linking them with the industry while they are still in school.
Universities will be expected to sign MOU’s with various corporates who will give internships and attachments to the students.
But the office across all universities faces sustainability challenges. Universities will need enough resources to handle overwhelming numbers of students seeking career guidance, internships and even job opportunities. [Prof Wainaina is Kenyatta University Vice Chancellor]
Prof Francis Aduol: Universities could not make up for time lost during lecturers strike
Just when universities thought they finally had an opportunity to make up for the time that was lost in 2017 when lecturers downed their tools to negotiate the 2013-2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement, another major strike was cooking.
This year was worst hit as lectures avoided class for close to 80 days. Teaching in universities was paralysed and in other universities, academic calendars were completely disrupted.
Many universities have witnessed spillovers into fresh academic years. This also meant that students who were supposed to graduate in 2018 were not able to do do.
To make up for the lost time when lecturers avoided classrooms, many universities had to do away with subsequent holidays to teach. This resulted in a lot of pressure on students who were forced to work harder than standard and clear school fees in a rush.
We understand the strike over the 2013-2017 CBA negotiations since it was the first time it was being extended from two years to four years and, therefore, it must have come with shock.
But there was an obvious unwillingness to budge by all parties over the 2017-2021 CBA negotiations. That is why the strike took long.
Timely negotiations will prevent future strikes and ensure that there is no repeat of what universities went through this year.
All parties have to understand that the CBA is provided for in the labour laws and should, therefore, be addressed with the seriousness it deserves. [Prof Aduol is Technical University of Kenya Vice Chancellor]