How existential flaws sink public universities

Saturday May 23 2020

Empty lecture halls at Egerton University in Njoro following a strike by lecturers over pay. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The spread of the coronavirus and the disease is causes, Covid-19, has disrupted nearly every aspect of life.

The pandemic has tested the relevance of institutions and organisations. Indeed, Covid-19 is not only a health-related challenge but also a problem that affects the economy and organisation of our society and politics.

Here in Kenya, like elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown universities into uncertain waters by forcing many of them to begin online teaching, and to disseminate research using online platforms.

Many of the public universities did not have this capacity. But the teaching staff have quickly learnt how to engage new skills. It is a revolution in many ways.

Outside of this revolution, the coronavirus has revealed the existence of ‘two-universities-in-one’ in our public universities.

It has shown that we have both the ‘administrative university’ and ‘academia’, existing parallel to each other. Both universities have different interests, powers and influence.


Of these two universities, the ‘administrative university’ is the most powerful and influential. It comprises administrators, finance officers and support staff. Procurement officers, security officers and powerful bursars are part of this university.


The administrative university is also the largest of the two. In terms of numbers, the staff in the administrative university are four times more than the teaching staff.

Worried about this trend and its impact on quality education, on February 18, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha pointed out the need to cut the number of support staff.

Prof Magoha underlined that the ratio of lecturer to support staff in some public universities is one to six.

In some of the smaller universities, the ratio is even more scary. Some of them have a ratio of one teaching staff to nine administrative staff.

The older universities do not perform better on this either. These figures have prevented universities from increasing the number of teaching staff.

Some of the most established have a ratio of one full-time lecturer to one part-time lecturer.

A back-of-envelope calculation of the recurrent costs absorbed by the administrative support is over 60 per cent because their salaries are not different from those of lecturers.

Although their core business is not teaching, in the 1990s the administrative staff compelled the university councils to give them ‘professor-equivalent’ and ‘lecturer-equivalent’ titles and salaries.

They coveted these titles because they wanted to import vehicles without paying import tax, a privilege that the government of President Daniel Moi extended to lecturers. President Mwai Kibaki withdrew this privilege later.


On account of these new titles, the administrative staff began to earn salaries equivalent to those of professors and lecturers.

They do so to date. Budget allocation by the National Treasury has to accommodate this large workforce every year.

The staff of the ‘administrative university’ live large in their offices. They are the ‘owners’ of the public universities in the literal sense of the word.

No change can take place in these universities if this change can threaten their self-interest. And their interests are not centred on improving teaching and the conduct of research. Their interests are focused on immediate benefits to themselves.

They treat themselves specially. Their car parks are very visible, well-marked and covered to protect them from the heat of the sun. They do not allow any professor to park anywhere near the ‘reserved’ areas.

In all public universities, including newer ones, the administrative staff have the infrastructure to support what they do.

They have messengers on their call and vehicles for short errands. And because they view themselves as ‘professor-equivalent’, they have little time for the teaching staff.

The ‘academia university’ is a pale image of the administrative university. A majority of the 32 public universities have many teaching staff sharing offices with broken furniture.

Teaching rooms and lecture theatres are so poorly furnished that some students take notes while standing.


And because they are derided by the administrative staff, the teaching staff do not bother to ask their universities to fix any problem.

It will not be done except if it is of benefit to the administrative staff. Theirs is a university starved of resources. Without privileges, they make do with what is available.

The ‘academia university’ has an interest in improving the quality of university teaching, research and engagement with the outside world.

Kenya’s teaching staff have a very good international rating among their peers. But not all of them.

Some of the teaching staff are so lazy that they have not published anything in the past 10 years or more. They neither read nor carry out research.

Some of them hope they will end up in the administrative university as principals of colleges, deputy vice-chancellors, or vice-chancellors.

Interestingly, the teaching staff who are appointed to the senior administrative positions tend to fast forget about the academia.

They are co-opted into the administrative university so fast that they begin to think and behave like ‘other’ administrators.

And once in these offices, they begin making policies that benefit them. They only realise the folly of this behaviour when they leave the office.

The origins of these divisions date back to the 1990s when government spending on public universities dipped.

To raise operational funds, the universities introduced a track for commercial tuition fees, or Module Two. The market and catchment were huge.

To support the programme, new support staff were required. Vice-chancellors and college principals embraced this with enthusiasm.


But within a short period, they transformed this into an opportunity for recruiting on the basis of tribe and nepotism. Those in senior positions would bring villagers in pickup trucks to begin a new life as support staff.

Secondly, the government treated universities as irrelevant to national development. The government treated public universities as any other parastatal rather than as institutions for generating knowledge for national development.

With the appointment of university councils linked to politics, soon universities began to offer employment opportunities to politicians, who in turn would protect the vice-chancellors who helped them.

This form of patronage is the basis for present-day county-based and village universities in the country.

Covid-19 has disrupted this division in a major way. The emergence of online teaching has one consequence.

Many staff of the ‘administrative university’ have found themselves with no duties to perform.

Teaching staff and students have suddenly re-created the university and given it its true meaning. In this new way of working from home, the ‘university physical offices’ that give power to the ‘administrative university’ have come to a near death.

The Ministry of Education has been wishing to restructure the universities. The coronavirus has made it easier to do so.

The ministry should begin by asking the universities to show what each staff was doing during the lockdown period.

Many will be distressed at this request because not all staff in our universities provide essential services – teaching, research and engagement with the community of scholars. Many are not strictly necessary to the functioning of a university.

Prof Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies, the University of Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own and are not associated with any institution. Twitter: @karutikk