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How our university system died

Hot on the heels of other run-down publicly funded institutions, universities have become money-minting machines for those in power and a fertile ground for incompetent, cronyist, and ethnic-based recruitment.

Moi University, once one of the country’s premier institutions of higher learning, and a major employer in the North Rift, is bankrupt. But so are the other citadels of knowledge, including Egerton, Kenyatta University, and the University of Nairobi.

None of our public universities can commit to honouring signed collective bargaining agreements, which led to the unravelling of things at Moi. Most, if not all, are not paying salaries and remitting statutory deductions as scheduled and, when they do, it’s embarrassingly late and in insufficient amounts.

Research funding has been cut, capital improvement projects halted and unpaid bills left to skyrocket to billions of shillings.

This mess is so severe, soon support and teaching staff, including moonlighting part-time lecturers who have not received a full pay, will muster courage, emulate their peers at Moi, down their tools and let the skunk out in the open.

Several factors have contributed to the slow decay and inevitable collapse of the university education system. There is credence that the Africans, no matter their level of education, is incapable of meaningfully steering that which is beneficial to their people. Although senior managers at our universities are lettered men and women with impressive titles and credentials, their performance as decision-makers is not different from what one would expect of uneducated members of the county assembly.

These political appointees and puppets of powers that be are a complete embarrassment to what higher education ought to deliver: Class and brilliance. Their persistent failure is indicative of the great shortfall in the mind of the African scholar when it comes to acquiring and deploying knowledge, managerial and critical thinking skills in their natural habitat.

Globally, disruptions occasioned by drastic measures taken to control Covid-19, such as shutdowns and social distancing, have spawned cash flow problems for many universities. In the United States, universities have experienced drops in their revenue stream due to class cancellations and the unexpected switch in learner preferences in the mode of instructions from in-person to online platforms.

Risen up to the challenge

The suspension of competitive collegiate sports and athletics programmes which generate sizable income and the shunning of dormitories and cafeteria services by students have further eroded the revenue base. The inflexibility of these institutions to lay off teaching and support staff means they continue to sustain a huge wage bill even with insufficient money coming in.

Competently run institutions have risen up to the challenge using varied creative approaches. Some have opted to merge departments, programmes, schools, and faculties and increase enrolment per class.

In some cases, professors are being offered early retirement and those who stay saddled with more classes. There have also been layoffs at a time when admissions have slumped. Endowment funds have been leveraged by others to soften the blow. Harvard University’s, supported by generous contributions from its alumni, is an impressive $53.2 billion (Sh5.4 trillion). Even without a penny coming in, Harvard Integrity

The rot in the country’s higher institutions, even though one can trace its root to the ethnicisation of key appointments and nepotism seen at the dawn of Independence, has been exacerbated by the current government. Some of its officials bear responsibility for the shameless looting, gross incompetence, and blatant mismanagement during their term. The pandemic only accelerated the inevitable.

Had these been people of integrity, they would have taken full ownership and stepped aside and let more competent individuals do the clean-up. But Africa is run by characters of grossly inflated self-worth who are more interested in passing the buck than doing the right thing — resign. They would not be fired either because they are useful cogs in an architecture crafted to sabotage and destroy public enterprise to make way for private business.

And then there is the fees borne by parents, which is ridiculously low and has remained unchanged for a quarter a century. This must be revised upwards to reflect increase in wages, inflation, and, yes, corruption. This adjustment is not only inevitable, but also going to be drastic and unpleasant to parents, many of whom are paying more for secondary education. They will pay, since they let crooks steal and bankrupt their country and universities.

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