Are universities losing autonomy or just resisting accountability?

Friday March 15 2019

The University of Nairobi. Universities have freedom in curriculum and programme design and teaching methods. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The public is still coming to terms with the revelation by the Commission for University Education (CUE) that over 10,000 students taking various programmes in our universities may not graduate with genuine degrees.

The communication revealed that the affected students had enrolled in programmes that were neither accredited nor approved by the agency.

CUE is the regulator of all universities in Kenya. Is this regulatory mandate being stretched to include policing or ‘prefecting’ universities?

On close interrogation, it is emerging that the statement was unwarranted. It was not even corroborated with the affected universities.

Mainly, it had more to do with ‘money’ that CUE expects to receive from the institutions based on declared programmes. Sad.



One wonders when CUE staff replaced university senates as the ultimate authority in approving academic programmes. This is not to excuse colleges that mount programmes with quality challenges for quick monetary gains.

The confusion is coming hot on the heels of the change in laws that has reduced the power of university councils to recruit vice chancellors, deputy vice chancellors, principals and their deputies.

Councils will no longer advertise and interview candidates seeking to manage institutions of higher learning. The task has been taken over by the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Councils will appoint those interviewed by the PSC after consulting the Cabinet secretary. Have universities in Kenya lost their autonomy or are they just resisting accountability to the public?


The general perception is that the government is slowly but consistently clawing back the freedom universities have enjoyed over the years.

Universities are no longer autonomous. For example, administrative autonomy is partly shared with relevant government agencies.

Financial autonomy is shared with the ministries of Education and Finance, while academic autonomy is shared with the CUE.

A fellow professor who feels strongly that the government is taking away university autonomy jokingly told me that “at this rate, universities may soon have their exams administered by the Kenya National Examinations Council”.

With nostalgia, senior scholars look back to the golden age when universities enjoyed freedom to pursue truth without limitations.

While the university community is worried that its autonomy is being eroded, other scholars argue that they are being economical with the truth since autonomy is not absolute.


Useful autonomy is realised in terms of self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership.

It is at the core of any university’s existence. It is functional. It is supposed to catalyse universities’ pursuit of truth, production, transmission of knowledge and selfless service to humanity.

Autonomy granted to universities is not meant to promote the personal interests of a few individuals. It is also not a licence to produce half-baked graduates.

Unfortunately, this is often stretched by some VCs and senior managers to mean freedom to manage a public entity as a private company.

Our universities must find a balance between autonomy and accountability. This is where the problem lies.


Autonomy is realised at many levels. Administratively, universities are free to start schools and departments, and appoint managers of those units.

Until recently, universities appointed almost all managers before wrangles necessitated the change in laws.

Universities have freedom in curriculum and programme design and teaching methods — no one dictates to any university what, when and how to teach. They also have a free hand in research and publications.

From the above examples, it is apparent that universities tend to downplay the autonomy they enjoy in academic affairs, research, international networking and student matters and lament about controlled autonomy in quality assurance, administration and finance.


The government needs to respect, protect and promote this autonomy. The academy must similarly restore universities to their lost glory by championing research and innovation instead of massification and over-commercialisation of programmes.

Failure by a few university managers should not be exploited by the government to whittle down the freedoms that are critical for discovery of new knowledge.

It is hoped that the incoming CS will restore faith in university autonomy as a prerequisite for a robust intellectual industry capable of powering Vision 2030.

The writer is a literature and law scholar at the University of Nairobi; [email protected]