The recent decision by Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i to suspend the head of Technical University of Mombasa, Mr Josphat Mwatela, allegedly over maladministration raises pertinent questions on the financial health of our universities.
This was not the first time that senior university managers were in the spotlight over financial management. Late last year, the University of Nairobi vice-chancellor appeared before a parliamentary committee after reports of a financial crisis at the institution surfaced.
Recently, a number of universities were in the news after the Auditor General declared them technically insolvent. The sobering truth is that a number of public universities are trapped in a troubling financial mess. It is no longer a secret that universities are not only struggling to meet basic third-party payments, but routinely rely on overdraft facilities to pay salaries.
To keen observers, this is unsurprising. The chickens have now come home to roost.
Poor financial policies now haunt us. For a long time, university finances have been treated with needless opacity, like military budgets. Only very few people in a university are privy to the actual financial status of any public university.
At a time of increased accountability and requisite public participation in governance, budgetary processes in universities have stuck to archaic, undemocratic methods. Not only does this raise suspicion on how the money is used but such obscurity creates the most congenial contexts for corruption, misappropriation of funds, maladministration, and outright theft.
The recent controversy over the Kenyatta University council’s decision to give its outgoing vice-chancellor millions of shillings as a send-off highlights the tensions surrounding transparency in financial management in the institutions.
Scholar Ishmael Munene argues that in more developed countries where accountability works, universities publish their financial records and their bosses regularly deliver a “state of the university” speech.
As a result of financial opaqueness, there is little budgetary discipline in public universities, which worsens, especially, in the highest echelons where accountability checks are less stringent. While all financial expenses should naturally follow budgeted vote-heads, such procedures are rarely respected.
Money is spent impulsively as soon as it is collected. With lack of clear policies on such matters as foreign travel and workshops, university administrators are shorn of much-needed financial restraint, with many living comfortably on endless per diems and hefty perks.
The current financial crisis is also a direct result of poor management of the windfall that accompanied the launch of the parallel degree programmes. Most public universities made dizzying incomes at the height of the massification of university education.
While some universities invested wisely, building campus infrastructure, others ran amok, splashing cash on short-term experiments and mindless expansion. Others took advantage of the surplus to blatantly abuse government establishments by launching a hiring blitz.
This haphazard employment was never reflective of actual needs. It is thus hardly surprising when news reports emerge of persistent patterns of nepotism, political pressure, and unprofessionalism in recruitment.
It is also the reason universities are disproportionately overstaffed and saddled with unsustainable wage bills. Although it is considered a good sign when a university spends more on salaries as this means smaller classes and an efficient deployment of human resource, this is hardly the case.
The windfall has since died down and the universities that raked in billions of shillings a decade ago have little to show for it.
The other contributor to the current financial mess is the government and politicians. Politicians routinely seek to influence the management of universities, often with disastrous consequences to finances.
For its part, the government has politicised higher education by issuing charters, not out of need but purely on a blunt ethno-political calculus. This not only stretches capitation funds but also starves existing public universities of badly needed funds. To salvage some of our universities from an imminent financial collapse, we must live within our means.
Dr Omanga is the head of the Department of Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University. [email protected]