The problem facing Kenyan universities is lack of theory and conviction of leaders, which I find so surprising, given that professors of all people, should have a grasp of the global issues facing education and of what university education is supposed to contribute to society.
Academics have bought into the lie that the way to run universities efficiently is to run them as businesses. And yet, education is a completely different kind of organization. We invest in people, we are accountable to the people we teach and the people in society. Businesses, on the other hand, are accountable to shareholders. Surely, we cannot be run in the same way.
But Kenyan university leaderships have failed to assert their uniqueness and have tried to run their institutions as businesses. But if anyone sucks (sorry) at business, it's us academics. And so it is inevitable that we will do such a poor job of running the university as a business. We're being inauthentic, copying companies, which we're not.
And it doesn't help that governments have been rubbing this in as they reduce the funding for public higher education.
Practically, that means a number of things:
- through performance contracting, we're replacing the collaborative nature of academic work (collegiality and peer review) with competition
- we're measuring success of the universities not by student enrollment, education and innovation, but by the balance sheet and real estate
- We're no longer interested in research but in donor funding; in some universities, donor funding is considered a major pillar of income generation
- generation of profit means we cut corners on education: we have bigger size classes taught by adjunct faculty to avoid spending money on faculty stability and quality education
- universities are dealing with the same dysfunctional politics as the rest of the country: promotions of faculty and graduate studies have become about ego and status rather than work, leadership (both students and staff) are governed by high cost campaigns, politicking and ethnic games
Solutions? I suggest
- A return to the conviction about education as a public good. We need university leaderships that believe that and insists on that, in order to resist corporatization of higher education, and the implications for quality of education and research, and the treatment of teaching staff
- Citizenship calling for better management of public resources so that universities can be properly funded
- Faculty finding their voice and defending education as a public good, the right of students to quality education. The unions should get new leadership that ties their labor advocacy to advocacy for public higher education
- Administration of universities that is publicly accountable. Budgets and spending should be open for public debate, especially to university communities. If funding is limited, students and staff can do a better job of designating what can be dropped from expenditure than managers ever could. More than that, employ more academic staff so that they take over administrative functions in addition to teaching. That way, universities don't have to employ over-paid managerial staff.
- Release universities from the pressure to have up-to-date equipment for training graduates. If we have a better apprenticeship system, students can interact with the latest gadgets at the workplace and reinforce the theories in the classroom. It is futile for universities to keep up with industry in terms of equipment, because they buy equipment for different purposes. There's no point of a university buying a 2018 model of equipment when a company is getting rid of its 2015 model which still works fine, and which it can donate it to a university.
I don't know any successful models of university management and funding because this is a worldwide problem. I've seen faculty getting together and forming summer schools where they patch up the gaps that remain unfilled in the formal graduate education. But that's a private solution to a public problem. I've also seen the Mondragon university in Spain which is owned by a cooperative, but I haven't quite understood how that works. Another model I've seen is the Deep Springs College, a two-year college where students are involved in governance, choose their classes, but also do their maintenance work in the college. And they don't pay fees.
I also don't agree that Kenyan public universities are the ones who should source for endowments and alumni donations to boost their funding. Those suggesting that are comparing the Harvards and Princetons, private universities with large endowments, to our public universities. That is comparing mangoes and oranges. They should be comparing Kenya's public universities to state universities in the US which also receive tax payers' money.
The scholars also don't take into account that for many universities, additional fund-raising offices like public relations and marketing, and alumni relations lead to the bloated managerial cadre that ends up eating whatever funds are raised. In other words, fundraising staff end up consuming almost as much as, if not more than, the money they raise. Fundraising staff sometimes spend money they raise not on education, but on retreats and cocktails to entice donors to give more.
If Kenya's economy is not stagnant as it is, if the tax collection was better and theft of public funds was curtailed, there would be more money to fund higher education. Union leaders and we academics should add this issues to the national conversation.
The fundamental problem of Kenyan universities is the suppression of original thinking and conviction in the university corridors themselves. Our leaders ape corporations, foreign universities and any other example thrown at us, without really thinking through to find out if that example is applicable, or not, to our situation. That inauthenticity is a fundamental contradiction to the mission of the university, which is to produce rigorous thinking and citizens who authentically tackle the challenges they face.
How did we academics get such an inferiority complex? That's the question to answer on another day.