By Dr. Vincent O. Ongore
Although the the strategic move by the university of Nairobi to reduce management layers is a bold move, its likely to cause controversy. If the main objective of the proposed restructuring is to enhance value proposition through improved efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery, flattening of managerial hierarchies, and making it less bureaucratic, then the move is well advised.
Ideally, a university should not be the epitome of procrastination and human resource wastage, where senior scholars waste away as administrators and paper pushers instead of engaging in teaching and research.
Several world universities are managed by trained managers and administrators who are not necessarily professors. The key considerations in appointing university Rectors, Provosts or Vice Chancellors should be their proven ability to allocate human and other resources to optimal uses, networking and collaborations with local and international partners, projecting the university’s value proposition to the world, fundraising acumen and eclecticism.
Other than Dr Josephat Karanja who was plucked from diplomatic service to become the first CEO of the university, all the others earned their positions by virtue of professorial status. Professors Maina Mungai, Philip Mbithi, Francis Gichaga, Crispus Kiamba, George Magoha, and Mbithi all rose through the ranks to become VC. The current one, Prof Kiama, too rose through academic ranks to the corner office at the University of Nairobi Towers.
Therein lies the problem. Academic work by its very nature is too consuming to allow scholars to think of anything else. In the West, universities have programs for industrial attachment where scholars horne their managerial and technical skills and knowledge through practical exposure to real work environment.
In Kenya, however, there’s no tradition of affording scholars opportunities to experience real work environment. So, most of them have limited understanding of the practical application of the theories that they grapple with in research.
It’s disastrous to elevate such people to run institutions. For that simple reason of lack of exposure, the successive VCs of the University of Nairobi have been conspicuously lacking in dynamic management practices. There has been evident lethargy to place the university up there, where it belongs with its peers around the world. Consequently, the university has projected itself largely as an inward-looking Kenyan institution offering traditional courses, and caring less about market trends.
In the modern world, universities must compete with their peers in the market place for research funds, top-notch scholars and students. That’s the basis upon which they are status and prestige are determined. Universities that are able to remain visible globally tend to enjoy the tag of ‘world-class’ while the rest remain national universities. The global labor market is influenced more by perceptions about universities rather than the actual ability of their graduates to successfully undertake tasks.
That’s why universities spend colossal amounts of money to remain visible. Visibility is an important consideration in ranking of universities. In turn, ranking influences the direction of flow of tuition fees across the world. For as long as a university continues to feature up there in world ranking, it will be able to attract top students from around the world and charge them competitive tuition fees. Universities in Europe and USA have excelled in attracting international students through sustained product positioning.
From my interactions with universities in Kenya and abroad, I do know that the perception out there is that African universities and other tertiary institutions are not good enough. The reality, however, is that when Kenyan students are placed in the same environment as those trained in European and American universities, say, for graduate studies, one easily notices the academic mettle of Kenyan graduates.
What Kenyan universities, including the University of Nairobi, lack are modern facilities that can expose their learners to contemporary ways of doing things in the market place. Their curricula have tended to remain static for several decades despite the reality of market dynamism, thus creating a gap between the knowledge and skills that graduates possess and market requirements. The proposed restructuring is therefore, a most welcome move.
The university needs to urgently spruce up its training facilities to be able to favorably compete with its peers in the global arena for production of innovative goods and services. It has been argued that the university’s ambition of rising to the world stage cannot be achieved with moribund facilities and dysfunctional professors and lecturers. For about two decades since the introduction of ‘Parallel Programs’ in Kenyan public universities in 1997, the University of Nairobi relied almost exclusively on fees paid by self-sponsored students to supplement government capitation.
The programs were nipped in the bud abruptly by government policy change that allowed most students with aggregate grade of C+ to join public universities as government-sponsored students, essentially drying up the pool from which the universities drew their students for Module II programs. University casflows were drastically affected. The ambitious expansion programs came to an abrupt stop. Once again, all the public universities started relying on the exchequer to pay salaries and for capital expenditure.
In the absence of innovative ways to shore up their finances, public universities have resorted to increasing tuition fees for new students. Unwittingly, however, by increasing tuition fees by more than double for module 2 students, the university appears to be perpetuating and deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
There are reasons most students would want to join UoN: 1. Oldest and most established, 2. Brand name, 3. Global recognition. But not all students who qualify can join the courses of their choice due to limited spaces.
University of Nairobi is a public institution sustained by Kenyan taxpayers through regular capitation by the National Treasury. It cannot punish qualified self-sponsored students because of its own capacity challenges. By charging high tuition fees, it’s essentially closing the door to Kenyan children whose parents and guardians cannot afford the fees. The effect is creation of unequal society where the children of the rich access good courses and get advantage in the labor market over children of poor citizens.
The university sees fee increment as a low-hanging fruit instead of invigorating research, and creation of a robust endowment fund and alumni association to shore up its finances. Private schools like Strathmore are justified in charging high fees due to commensurate quality education that they offer: state-of-the-art facilities, international faculty, current teaching material, and global benchmarking. Without research funding, the University of Nairobi relies on outdated teaching material, archaic facilities, and traditional inward-looking teaching approaches.
Fee increment is totally unjustifiable unless there’s evidence of quality enhancement. It is not lost on observers that since his appointment, the current VC has been locked in turf wars with some of his senior managers whom he perceives to have ganged up with the former Acting VC, Prof Isaac Meroka Mbeche, and Education Cabinet Secretary, Prof Magoha, also a former VC, to deny him ascendancy to the apex of the University leadership. Pundits opine that the radical restructuring at the university presents the VC a golden opportunity to remove senior administrators who have been thorns in his flesh.
At the same time, UoN might inadvertently, be wading into the hustler versus dynasty political debate that’s raging in the country. The move to increase tuition fees will be fodder for the hustler side which will definitely present it as evidence of insensitivity towards low income earners on the part of the ‘dynasty’. The ‘hustler’ group is likely to promise a better deal to poor parents and their children once they take over the country’s top leadership. Of course, politicians make promises, some of which they don’t even believe in, so that they can win elections.
Once reality sets in, then practical decisions can be made based on facts and figures at their disposal. The university must allow Kenyans an opportunity to participate in such major decisions before they are implemented . In any case, the University of Nairobi, being a public institution, belongs to Kenyans. The people of Kenya need to agree on the direction it takes, but certainly, no transformation of the magnitude they are proposing should take place in an election year.
The writer is a Business Administration & Management Lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya. Email firstname.lastname@example.org