Kenya has ordered public universities to lay off 5,000 people, 35 per cent of their non-teaching staff, from next month in the hope of diverting funds to teaching.
Finance minister Chris Okemo has said that public universities have too many unskilled and semi-skilled workers, as well as a bloated bureaucracy of administrative cadres.
Among those targeted are cleaners, accountants, secretarial staff, assistant registrars and janitors. Non-teaching staff in the five public universities - Nairobi, Moi, Kenyatta, Egerton and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology - account for 75 per cent of the workforce.
At Moi, there are six non-teaching staff for every academic. At Kenyatta, almost 80 per cent of the labour force is composed of non-teaching staff. However, at Nairobi, there are three non-teaching staff to every lecturer or research fellow.
According to the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, the system paid idle workers. Okwach Abagi, a senior research fellow, said: "Universities in Kenya have been acting as social welfare institutions instead of pursuing an academic agenda."
While university libraries are almost empty, the costs of central administration and services exceed tuition unit costs.
A World Bank report on public university financing recommended massive retrenchment to reduce the ratio of non-teaching staff to students. On average, there is one non-teaching employee for every three students compared with one teaching employee for every 15 students.
Mr Okemo said that the government would spend Pounds 8.5 million on "golden handshakes". The cash saved from staff cuts would allow universities to provide basic learning facilities and fill vacant teaching positions, he added.
On average, 30 per cent of teaching posts in public universities remain unfilled. This has resulted in heavy teaching loads, and teaching has increasingly been left to junior academic staff.
However, lecturers at the University of Nairobi said low pay rather than heavy workloads was to blame for the problems.
The World Bank study found that 40 per cent of senior academic staff in public universities worked part time in private universities, non-governmental organisations and private companies.
Most professors were spending 12 to 15 hours a week in private businesses. Mr Okemo conceded that teaching in public universities was weak because less than 50 per cent of academic staff hold doctoral degrees or their equivalent.