Kenya's dying universities

September 22, 1995

Scores of students sit daily outside the Gandhi Memorial Library at the main campus of the University of Nairobi hawking stationery, textbooks and other academic paraphernalia which they have bought at highly subsidised prices from the university bookshop next door.

You can tell which faculties they come from. Medical students sell rare medical science textbooks, gloves, surgical and other laboratory and theatre equipment and clothing; veterinary science students push wellington boots, syringes and drugs, while literature students sell classical literary works which are unavailable in city bookshops.

Virtually every faculty, department and subject is represented in this open-air market. The buyers in this sad trade are bookshops, open-air dealers and pharmacies in the city of Nairobi. Other students deliver their wares to bookshops and other specialised stores in the city. The goods go for a quarter of their standard price.

Everybody in the oldest university in Kenya knows about this trade. But nobody does anything except to issue statements warning the students against selling their work tools.

Occasionally university security personnel swoop down on the students but they are later released since nobody knows whether it is legal to sell subsidised university equipment.

Students have converted their halls of residence rooms into kiosks where they sell everything from alcohol to second-hand clothing and hair-styling gear.

A senior university official conceded that many students were selling the wares they needed for study. But he said the problem is even worse than this. "Go to the student toilets at the geography, meteorology and climatology department in Hyslop building and see its status," he advised. The building was put up in honour of the late music teacher Graham Hyslop who wrote Kenya's national anthem.

Indeed, the toilets used by hundreds of students, lecturers and scientists were filthy beyond belief. Dirty water formed pools, toilet seats were broken and the cisterns were full of muck. The walls had not been scrubbed for years. The University of Nairobi is dying.

"What you have seen is the real status of this university. We are sitting on a time bomb. There is going to be an explosion here before very long and the government will need to use a lot of force and tear gas to put it down," the official said.

The university "has hit rock bottom. We have no money and the government has refused to implement an agreement with the World Bank to unlock funding for reforms," he said.

The quality of degrees offered is questioned by employers. Library shelves are empty or contain old, torn books. The university has not bought books for many years. It depends on donations from Britain, the private sector and lately Japan.

Discipline among academic staff has declined. The official, a senior administrator in one of the larger faculties, said he had not met his dean for three months. "The professor has not been to his office. His secretary sits there daily whiling time away. The professor draws a salary from the university but does his consultancy from his private city office a few blocks down the road," he said.

This scenario is repeated by hundreds of other lecturers. Many use the university offices, telephones, faxes and secretarial staff for private consultancy work. The decay in administration at this university of more than l0,000 students has to be seen to be believed.

The official said examinations taken by students over one year ago have not been marked because the lecturers no longer show up at the office. Final-year students have been at home for close to two years without their certificates because either the lecturers left without marking the papers or have simply not graded them. Everywhere in the faculty offices, you find heaps of unmarked papers waiting for lecturers to mark them.

The university administration knows this chaos exists but dare not crack the whip for fear of provoking a strike by ill-paid and demoralised staff. The government would rather tolerate a quiet but chaotic situation rather than face an embarrassing strike.

Last year, lecturers went on a ten-month strike demanding registration of their union, but received their full salaries and benefits including promotions from the university administration. The lecturers walked back to their lecture rooms arguing that the government wanted to destroy higher education in Kenya.

In a national address, President Moi swore never to register the union. He argued that university lecturers were "managers" who did not need a union; they were agents of foreigners and the opposition working to undermine university education and his government; there are no university lecturer unions anywhere in the world. Union leaders were frequently arrested and charged with various offences before they were released. The cases went nowhere.

University lecturers in Nairobi are among the most poorly paid in the region. A professor who has served for 20 years will earn 26,000 Kenyan shillings (US$473) a month. Many lecturers have already been driven by the poor remuneration and working conditions to the private sector or to universities in Zimbambwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa or Europe and North America.

Over the years and during massive populist binges, President Moi expanded the universities, ordering the opening of new ones by converting high schools and low-level colleges without considering the economic and social cost. Nobody warned him of the grave dangers he was courting for fear of retribution. Kenya has four overcrowded, ill-equipped public universities with more than 40,000 students.

As the situation became more unmanageable, the government called in the World Bank to help. The bank commissioned accountants Delloite and Touche to study university education and make necessary recommendations. The University of Nairobi seconded its deputy vice chancellor, Shem Wandiga, who was in charge of administration and finance at the university, to the World Bank team. Shem Wandiga is a highly respected administrator and chemistry professor.

The team made far-reaching recommendations. The government were forced to stop paying students to go to school and introduce an economic tuition fee estimated at KShl20,000 per year. It had to start charging for food and accommodation at its hostels which the university had been providing free of charge.

It had to close those universities and campuses that had been opened for political reasons. The committee recommended that all university campuses except Nairobi, Kenyatta and Egerton be closed.

At the end of the exercise, Professor Wandiga announced that fees would be introduced. The government hit back with a statement denying there was a plan to introduce fees. Professor Wandiga was sacked and described as an opposition sympathiser with no mandate to speak for the state.

A few months later, the government introduced a small fee of KSh6,000 while paying back to the students KSh5,000 for food and catering services in halls of residence. This year, the government raised the fees to KSh50,000 and withdrew the stipend to the students. It also scaled down intake considerably.

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