Kiama must reverse University of Nairobi’s decline

Monday, June 8th, 2020 00:00 |
Stephen Kiama. Photo/File

The inauguration of the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof Stephen Kiama, should be a turning point for the oldest university in Kenya, as well as for running of public universities in Kenya. If he fails, the huge battle he fought to be confirmed to the position will have been fruitless.

Public universities have been dogged for years by bad governance, political interference, incompetent vice chancellors, and irrelevance to the society.

Most of these institutions have simply become processing lines for thousands of graduates with suspect degrees, who join the dumping pit of millions of unemployed youth with little prospect of ever becoming gainfully employed.

Kiama has his work cut out for him. His first task is self-sufficiency. It is disgraceful that after 50 years of existence, the university still dependent on government subvention to do things as basic as buying stationery.

Self-respecting universities have established systems through which they receive millions of dollars annually which enable them to consistently enhance their quality as teaching and research institutions. 

Kiama must tap into the huge and successful alumni of the university for endowments.

Research must become a cornerstone of generating funds, and partnerships with industry to assist them in knowledge generation and management must become an integral part of his agenda. He must aim to relegate government subventions to a footnote!

Kenya’s universities have lost relevance to the country. At a critical time such as this when the country is frantically looking for answers, Kenya’s academics are nowhere to be seen or heard.

Not even on television talk shows offering expert views. This is a complete dereliction of duty. 

Kiama must not waste time. He needs to deploy the brain trust under his stewardship to start thinking through the country’s current challenges, and feeding into the various organs that are trying to work out solutions going forward.

The country’s economic recovery and Covid-19 response are but two glaring examples.

The business model in universities must be changed. Lecturers do the minimal possible, and spend their time agitating for wage increases. Kiama must change this paradigm.

All faculties must justify their existence, as well as the courses they mount. Courses must be relevant to the country’s social, political  and economic needs.  

With this alignment, lecturers will then be paid for producing, much in the way universities are run in well-established educational regimes.

This realignment will not be easy, or painless, as it will be resisted by those whose contribution is dubious. But those who know they work hard and deserve better pay will embrace it.

With lecturers teaching courses that students demand because they are relevant, and also working on research and courses that are being funded in partnership with government and industry, the issue of spending time agitating for wages will be a thing of the past, as they will be well paid.

Kiama needs to pacify the administration of the university. Under his predecessor, the university had become a veritable battlefield, with conflicts the order of the day.

It created a toxic working environment. Subsequently, Kiama must heal, reconcile and mobilise his administration to forge ahead as a cohesive unit.

Without this, he’ll meet the same fate as his predecessor—a one-term vice chancellor.

Finally, why have public universities suspended learning just because students are at home? Pubic universities are in limbo.

It’s a shame that when primary and secondary schools in the country are running full-fledged academic programmes via the internet, university students who require even less supervision, and their lecturers, and who should have simply continued learning online are idling at home.

It is this type of linear thinking that has stymied any creativity in the universities, and stopped them from being thought leaders in the country.

It is universities that should not only be providing leadership in online learning at this time, but also generating solutions that enable the country to propagate the same countrywide. 

Kiama must benchmark the University with top institutions globally. And he must realise that five years is a very short time when seeking total transformation of an institution. And the sand has started running through his hourglass. [email protected]

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