Q&A With UoN Vice Chancellor Prof Kiama

June 22, 2020

Prof Stephen Gitahi Kiama, the 8th Vice-Chancellor, University of Nairobi, responded to questions from the public via Nation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that Covid-19 will be here for some time, yet most learning in Kenya, unlike in developed countries, depends on face-to-face interaction. Where do you see the future of higher learning in Kenya and what is your advice to comrades on the same? Bernard Chetambe Lipesa, Nairobi

It is important to realise when the environment has changed and respond appropriately for survival. Drawing lessons from evolution, we learn that survival is for the fittest and consequently species that fail to adapt to changes in their environment become extinct.

Covid-19 has catalysed the swift adoption of online teaching and assessment. Universities that fail to adapt may be decimated through loss of students to those that quickly adapt to change.

As University of Nairobi, we are and hope to remain leaders in adapting to change. I, therefore, ask the comrades to appreciate, accept and adapt to the new reality; universities will not be the same again.

The UoN is apparently facing financial problems and its continued operation depends on the support of the government and creditors. The institution has been running one of the biggest deficits among universities in the country and has been unable to meet pension and other statutory deductions for its workers. What are you doing to address the biting cash crisis at the university?Raphael Obonyo, Nairobi

Three years ago, government funding to universities shifted to the Differentiated Unit Cost (DUC) model. It uses the number of undergraduate students sponsored by the government to determine the level of government support. The implementation of the model resulted in reduction of government capitation in large universities, including UoN, causing a huge payroll gap.

Subsequently, the university was persuaded that increasing the number of Module II students would bridge this gap, an assumption that did not hold. Add to that the “Matiang’i grades” and the accompanying fall in numbers of students qualifying to join university.

To address this crisis, my team and I have to reengineer financial and support systems through a number of reforms to minimise financial utility and increase the value proposition. Further, we have to invest in intangible assets that have a huge potential for revenue growth. This should allow us some small but growing headroom to start discharging our current liabilities.

I also wish to implore the government to review the universities’ funding model with a view to capturing the uniqueness of each university. For instance, UoN staff comprises very senior and seasoned professors who have to be remunerated as advised by the Salary and Remuneration Commission (SRC).

The African Exponent has ranked UoN number seven among the top 10 universities in Africa. What plans have you put in place to maintain or improve the performance? Raphael Obonyo, Nairobi

Over the years, UoN has done very well on all rankings. I see this as evidence that the university has lived true to its purpose. Going forward, we should not rest on our laurels but better this trajectory. I know that our human resource remains our greatest asset. We do not take this for granted. Skyrocketing inflation and low salaries in the 90s saw us lose many faculty members to Europe and America, occasioning a huge brain drain. Regrettably, declining funding poses a new threat.

In the meantime, my team and I will prioritise resource alignment to the mandate of the university in order to ensure sustained and improved performance in all ranking indicators.

Research with impact is another critical factor in the performance of a university. I urge the government to implement the provision of two per cent of the national budget to finance research in our universities.

What do you think about university councils in public universities? What value do they lend to the traditional mission of the university and why are they political creations? What can be done to make them more valuable to universities?Ann Njoki Njung’e, Limuru

Contrary to popular belief, university councils are not a political but a statutory creation with a clear mandate as defined in the founding statutes. They are an important organ of governing the university. What the university councils have endured is political interference.

To make the councils more effective, in my view, the line ministry should restrict itself to matters policy, competitively appoint members of councils and thereafter entrust them with the space and latitude to oversee the affairs of the university, including appointment of all university staff as provided by law. Their rights (council members), as citizens and members holding such high positions in trust for the benefit of the country, should always be protected and respected.

Higher education in our public universities faces a serious challenge posed by competing forces aligned to either the teaching or non-teaching staff. The latter, comprising senior management and support staff, was found to be more influential in, among others, allocation of funds and procurement of goods and services. The unions representing the two groups have also grown so powerful that either can disrupt the running of the institutions. How do you plan to deal with the two groups so that there is minimal disruption of the academic calendar and to ensure the two groups work in harmony? Dan Murugu, Nakuru

Recent experience has shown us that staff unions are not enemies of university leadership. We are, therefore, duty-bound to lend a listening ear to staff grievances that may arise from time to time. This should go a long way in reducing industrial action by staff and attaining a fairly predictable and tranquil environment for the attainment of university objectives.

The Constitution of Kenya affords all citizens the freedom to associate, to express themselves and to picket peaceably and unarmed. To the extent that the unions accord with the dictates of the law, they are free to represent the interests of their members.

Student accommodation, management of finances and procurement of goods and services are handled by staff with the necessary professional training. Similarly, teaching, learning and research functions of the university are managed by staff with the necessary qualifications. Therefore, there is space for all staff to play their rightful role in advancing the university’s mission without encroaching on the provinces of others.

What measures are you going to implement that would ensure that students undertaking PhD studies finish their programmes on time? Okulo Andrew Guya, UoN student

The Commission for University Education (CUE) standards provide that a doctorate degree programme shall extend for at least three academic years with research constituting a minimum of two-thirds of the entire programme. Pursuing a doctorate degree is therefore not a casual mission and requires personal commitment.

Finishing a doctorate degree on time, therefore, depends on many factors, including the nature of the project and the quality of supervision. As a university, we are committed to provide an enabling environment for mentorship and nurturing of PhD students.

I would therefore advise those who want to do a PhD to put aside all other activities that are likely to interfere with their studies and make appropriate time and financial commitments. Where this is wanting, the PhD may take a longer period. Students should feel free to raise any concern with the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academics or even the office of the Vice-Chancellor.

Our veterinary students graduate with technical skills that qualify them for licences to be meat inspectors and AI technicians. When Environment students graduate, they automatically get registered by Nema as associate and lead experts. Same case with medical students. Why can’t you make other courses give students practical skills to get licences upon graduation without having to be trained by technicians once they get jobs? For instance, the food science should produce graduates who automatically get licences to become coffee brewers, licensed tea tasters and wine tasters. A minor change in the course content will make the graduates far much better and practical. Dr Irungu Maina

We have embarked on assessing our programmes to determine how well they respond to market, industry, societal and government needs. Additionally, we are interrogating the depth of coverage in so far as delivery of curricula, inculcation of practical skills and integration of industry in our teaching and research are concerned.

On May 8, the university approved online examination guidelines but the administration of the examinations has been marred by technical hitches. What was the urgency of conducting e-examinations during the pandemic? What measures were put in place to prevent cheating? Bernard Nyang’ondi, Mombasa

This was a decision reached by Senate. Scientists are persuaded that Covid-19 will be with us for a long time and therefore the university needs to adapt its systems and processes to cope within this new reality.

In this changing context, our administration of e-examination benefited from best practices across advanced jurisdictions, which provide for safeguards against cheating through diverse modes of invigilation, including candidate identification and real-time camera surveillance. As a learning university, we continue to take lessons to improve the examinee experience in future and to provide the students with appropriate remedies in case of challenges. Solutions will be found on a case-by-case basis.

The student leadership in our public universities, especially at the UoN, was a melting pot for great national leadership. Over the years, the government and universities have systematically weakened the unions by influencing elections. The final nail on the coffin was changing the election method – from universal suffrage to a delegate system. The net effect is that current student leaders cannot agitate for any course that will shape the national socio-economic and political discourse. Even agitating for student welfare is no longer possible. What is your take on this?Bernard Nyang’ondi, Mombasa

One must look at the calibre of leadership in terms of eras. Across the world, leaders of great repute, by the sheer magnanimity of the challenges they then faced, rose to the challenge and immortalised themselves by contributing to giant leaps of both country and humanity.

These eras come and go and it’s tempting to imagine that leaders of eras characterised by calm and progress have made little contribution to humanity. If one were to look at leaders across the country, one would see that many of these leaders are alumni of the university who cut their teeth during their days in student leadership irrespective of the mode of election.

The delegate system is a time-tested method that ensures diversity in leadership as well as other important factors that would be lost in free-for-all elections. This method is employed in most well established political parties. A majoritarian system, for all its touted greatness, excludes the uptake and application of good ideas and ideals.

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