By blocking professional bodies from approving and accrediting university courses, the National Assembly has shown uncharacteristic acuity and set the tempo for reforms in the management of our institutions of higher learning.
Before the Universities (Amendment) Act was gazetted just three weeks ago, the institutions had almost been stripped of their autonomy and authority in making decisions on the kind of programmes they should offer, how they should run them and how to create some degree of uniqueness for marketing purposes. This is because of the emergence of numerous regulatory bodies, all scrambling to inspect the institutions to determine if their programmes are valid, index students, collect fees, check facilities etc.
This had become especially exasperating to the universities because the professional bodies would be repeating an exercise already carried out by the Commission for University Education (CUE). In a nutshell, these professional bodies were only duplicating a task already completed by the commission.
Thankfully, Members of Parliament (MPs) have now stripped the professional boards of any mandate in the recognition, licensing, indexing students, approving or accrediting any single academic programme, giving full authority over such tasks to CUE.
Obviously, the professional bodies are unhappy with the amendment, but the rationale behind it is not only persuasive but also prudent. In an institution like the University of Nairobi which offers more than 300 academic programmes, how is it possible to have the same number of professional bodies accredit each of the courses before they can be approved? How can universities operate normally in a toxic environment where engineers, lawyers, journalists, teachers, community workers, et cetera are all demanding to inspect the curricula, books, facilities and staff quality all at once?
Most the universities offer between 10 and 100 different courses that lead to various careers, therefore, wouldn’t the professional bodies be suffocating them with inspection demands for issues already authoritatively assessed by the commission?
Still, the regulators were operating under the Universities Act, meaning that as legal entities, they were entitled to funds from the Treasury and the universities themselves just like the commission does, which raises questions about the management of taxpayer funds given the wasteful duplication of roles.
In many parts of the world, especially in developing nations, professional bodies add value to the lives of students because they expose them to networking opportunities, subsidise fees for students attending professional seminars and conferences and help them find internship opportunities. They also offer direct recruitment services, give students access to reduced literature, competitions and awards and student-specific events.
Most of their work is student-centred rather than institution-centred and so the winner is always the learner. Not so in Kenya where professional bodies merely sought to stamp their authority on the universities, while giving little or no dividend to the learner. Meanwhile, they would be earning millions from the universities and the exchequer.
The Council for Legal Education, the supervisor and regulator for legal education in Kenya, ordered the closure of Moi and Mount Kenya universities Law Schools in 2015 after it declared that the institutions physical facilities and teaching resources were inadequate for the programme. The council asked the universities to come up with a clear plan to facilitate the transfer of the students to accredited institutions. Though the High Court annulled the decision, saying the council did not have authority to approve or withdraw accreditation, the fact that the row ended up in court is a manifestation of how disruptive such disputes can be to the management of the universities and the lives of the students. These are public institutions, including the Commission which was dragged into the court case as an interested party, hiring lawyers using taxpayer funds on a dispute that should not have been there in the first place.
The Engineers Board of Kenya recently condemned more than half of engineering degree courses offered by universities on the grounds that it had not approved them.
These two are just examples of the kind of turmoil that would have been seen in both public and private universities were it not for the amendments.
Granted, the professional bodies can play a big role in ensuring that professional competencies and learning outcomes necessary for entry into professions are taken into account at the conceptualisation of the degree programmes.
They also should have a say into the kind of facilities and calibre of teaching staff on offer to guard the dignity and reputation of the profession. But these, as the Act rightly states, should only be done in consultation with the commission. And even then, the composition of the professional bodies themselves must also be subjected to strict examination to guard against a situation in which, people with only first degrees are being called to determine the kind of postgraduate courses that universities should offer.
As the Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i embarks on reforming the universities, the amendment of the Universities Act should serve as a promise that the changes he introduces will not be self-serving, aiming to benefit individuals or some institutions but will be beneficial to the whole country.
Kariuki Waihenya is rewrite editor, ‘Daily Nation’.