Many readers were rightly shocked by media reports that most of Kenya’s universities fail the ethnic diversity test.
At an event at State House, Nairobi, convened by the President and attended by vice-chancellors and chairmen of university councils, the National Integration Commission reported that most public and some private universities are fertile grounds for the breeding of tribalism and that in regard to employment, some are represented by up to 80 per cent of members from one community.
According to the report, the location of the campuses and the ethnicity of the vice-chancellor plays a pivotal role in nourishing this malaise.
To address this, President Kenyatta suggested that a course on national integration and cohesion be made compulsory for all students to position universities at the vanguard of entrenching national unity and integration.
The President’s suggested solution overlooks the root causes of this problem.
I have written before on how universities have been captured by a persistent ethnic logic.
The history of this cancer runs deep and draws from our post-colonial history where the administration saw universities as spaces that had to be controlled to produce what historian Atieno Odhiambo called “the ideology of order”.
This was achieved through direct appointment of the vice-chancellor by the head of state, who was the chancellor of all the public universities.
This has since changed, but only formally. The informal rules still give a lot of power to politicians to determine the appointment of vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors in the public universities.
The appointment is often a factor of ethnic rather than academic merit.
Frankly, unless we change how vice-chancellors and their deputies are appointed, it is futile to talk about diversity, let alone offer courses on national cohesion.
Second, the setting up of new universities is no longer driven by service needs, but simply ethno-political considerations.
In the Kibaki and Moi eras, districts were routinely “given out” through roadside declarations to cajole voting blocs, consolidate power, and as a way of dealing with political threats.
Currently, with no districts to offer in the new Constitution, universities and constituent colleges have become the new political freebies.
We have dangerously politicised higher education. As a country, we are at risk of losing sight of the actual role of university education.
The university is akin to hallowed space; the altar where a country’s social, economic, and cultural aspirations are fashioned and where its human capital is formed, both for individual and collective benefit.
Sadly, the alacrity and recklessness with which universities are being “founded” or “established” not only makes a mockery of the philosophy underpinning university education, but also reveals the negative effects of politics in the context of massification of higher education.
While the Commission for University Education (CUE) has clear guidelines on regulating higher learning, the outfit is woefully toothless, especially at the intersection of political interests and establishment of universities.
Most of the constituent colleges and universities being “fast-tracked” for inauguration before 2017 do not meet some of the basic requirements set by CUE for their establishment.
Such “political” universities naturally turn out to be more or less the property of specific ethnic communities.
Obviously, universities founded on the basis of exciting ethnic constituencies reproduce and legitimise the discourses and practices of ethnic entitlement.
For our universities to be completely freed from their current struggles over diversity, the process of establishing them must be depoliticised.
While the State should play its rightful role in facilitating higher learning, it must operate within respectable legal boundaries.
Also, the CUE must wake up from its prolonged siesta and assert its authority in regulating universities.
For its part, the State must shield the CUE leadership from political influence.
Apart from appointing vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors more rigorously and through an independent, transparent process, universities must also adopt more accountable and cooperative governance where crucial decisions are broadly inclusive.
Importantly, politicians must respect the autonomy of the academe and likewise, university bosses must learn not to kowtow to politicians, some of whom have never been to a university.