Monday, 4 May 2009

conflict resolution in Kenyan universities: The Kenyatta University lessons to learn

One month has never seemed such a long time. A semester that was just about to end without much ado degenerated into unbelievable sordid mess in just two weeks and having spent a whole month at home I have effectively forgotten books. Two student strikes in quick succession, burnt down university facilities, a tainted reputation for an hitherto acclaimed Vice Chancellor and bruised egos both for the VC and the student leaders.

There was a unique thing, really a firsts about this strike. University students in Kenya have always used strikes to settle thorny issues either with the government or their university administration but never before have they ever, ever destroyed University property.

But for me I'm continually disillusioned and disappointing. Don't jump to conclusions I'm not saying I regret going back to finish my degree studies. No, far from it I'm still enthusiastic as I was in my last post. What disillusions me is the absence of systems at our governmental and institutional levels in our country. Everything seems to be based on people, personalities rather than a system of working and structures within the institutions and also the government that will enable solving of problems or disputes, performance of functions and facilitation of growth.

This void is so obvious to me that I am disappointed that all our learned professors, all our esteemed politicians are blind to this fact as being the root cause underlying all our problems.

Well just to make easier reading I'll just start with the university using the recent strike and it's aftermath as an example of how an established system would help our cause.

The problem begun just two weeks to final examinations for this semester. Some students according to the students body 2000 in number, according to the Dean of Students 200 in number had paid their fees later than a set deadline of February 7th. These students did everything else that was required of them this semester including CATs, assignments etcetera But realized that they could not do the final examination without regularizing their online status which had not been updated to show that they were eligible to sit exams in recognition of their completion of this semesters fees. So these student's through the newly elected students union set out a request for registration to be reopened to allow them to update their status.

This is when the problem begun. Some say the newly elected KUSA rubbed the VC the wrong way and took an HAKI yetu approach (the approach used by politicians after the 2007 flawed elections). Others say the VC was fixated about fees deadlines and was unyielding to an otherwise reasonable request.

Here we find our first instance of absence of systems or structures. KUSA is the elected body of students but it has no agreement set on what matters to approach the VC on and neither is it empowered to solve any problem on its own. So every little thing the student leaders have to approach the VC. Secondly, there are no set rules such as

1. In the event of an student emergency KUSA can request for a meeting with the Vc and other top officers in the University without a prior pre-arrangement. I have no example of such an emergency...(maybe a security breach such as a student found to be a criminal shot in the hostels by security forces) grim example but that's what I can think of.

2. In the event of a problem affecting many students KUSA can submit a written petition to the VC with the names of those directly and indirectly affected and the suggested solution and the resources which the University would need to employ to solve the problem. The VC can approve this without even meeting the students officials or can meet with them if he/she proposes an alternative solution. A good example would be the problem which caused the latest strike

...so in my created system KUSA would present a long list of 2000 students affected by the registration deadline, make a request for registration to be reopened for half a day and staff deployed to carry it out (registration for the whole university body of 24,000 students takes four days - 8 working hours, so presumably for 2000 students resource needed would be less than half a working day)

3. In the event of some problems KUSA would solve them by themselves without involving the administration or only seeking clarifications from the administration.

Unfortunately the third may just be a pipe dream like I said before the body is not empowered. It has no allocation in the university budget/(vote allocation) and all the subscription they collect 100 Kshs. per student per semester or is it year is not explained to what use it will be put to. In addition to this the old draconian rule that existed when students unions used to be anti-government voices still exists and is enforced to date (That no student - read leader- is allowed to make statements in the press or public domain without consulting the University in matters concerning the University. In the event any student breaches this rule they face discontinuation from the University). So basically it's no wonder the Kenyan public only get to know of problems in the University when rampaging students stream on to the highways on strike. No one is allowed to "let the outside world know" if there's an issue. This may also be a very good reason as to why the students leaders instead of seeking a one on one appointment to talk to the VC take an "Haki yetu" approach where they are shielded by the multitudes ...a bit cowardly don't you think. But then nobody likes to court discontinuation from their studies..

We also realize at this very initial point that the university lacks systems which even small commercial colleges have in place. In some colleges if you pay fees late one just has to pay a fine of 1000 Kshs. a similar rule is in place for those who find it easier to pay fees in installments. There are others who do not charge any fines but insist on everyone making full payment before exams regardless of whether it's a day or two before exams...one is still eligible to sit the exam.

Well for Kenyatta University nothing of the sort exists. To aggravate matters the VC stuck by her initial insistence that students who had paid fees late take the semester off. This would mean that all the CATs and assignments and a whole two and a half months work would go to waste as they would have to redo the whole of it in the next semester. It would also mean that the University forfeit money that these students would have paid in the coming semester since their late payment would have to be carried over as unutilized fees.

Ask any accountant or financial advisor and they will tell you that you do not forfeit a cashflow unless you are generating interest or a return from the alternative that is equivalent or greater than the forfeited cashflow. In this case the Universities' alternative is "holding the unutilized funds" and I don't know of any investment even in the black market that would give an equivalent return. Average fees per semester for a self sponsored student (one who doesn't receive government subsidy) is 70,000 Kenya shillings a semester. So if the University forfeits this amount from 2000 students next semester this amounts to 140,000,000. If it is 200 students (as per the deans estimate) that's about 14,000,000 Kenya shillings.

So from my personal analysis nothing in terms of time efficiency or financial prudence or basis supported the VCs action to insist on students taking the semester off. It was most probably an ego decision.

This belief is further reinforced by the events that followed. The initial strike wasn't serious some of the disgruntled students broke down the University banner above the gate and attacked the Coca Cola cold freeze box at the gate and of course drank the contents. The VC and the university council took a drastic action and closed the University. This was absolutely unnecessary students in far flung campuses such as Parklands and maybe Ruiru just received a circular stating the University had been closed...they were in the most part oblivious as were most students in the Main campus on Thika road to what was going on. This was really a show of muscle again.

Then to ask students to report back (not all of them just those whose fees was paid before the deadline) and then pay 1,000 shillings each was just going beyond all justice and fairness. Firstly because the students who were to pay this amount were not really involved or directly affected by the first issue. So the penalty was unjust.

This penalty was also dubious in that students who had overpayments in their fee accounts were still forced to pay this amount in cash no transfers were allowed from fees overpayments.
To compound this exams were slated for the next day after reporting back...(remember regardless of the fact that before the strike there were three whole weeks to exams). To cap it all the KUSA students representatives were suspended from the University.

All these decisions have all the markings of mismanagement and an absence of systems. So the aftermath everyone knows about it. Students rioted, burnt some buildings, one of them got killed by police, others were badly beaten by police, several were hospitalized and some were arrested and charged with arson.

There is a bit of a glimmer of hope. Last week the senate met and there is a probability that the University will reopen in August. The little basis of hope I have is that the suspended students leaders were involved in this last meeting and dialogue is a good thing.

The other thing I am hopeful about is that the VC will focus her energy in building something other than buildings. She is by far the most development minded Vice Chancellor the University has had and has made tremendous achievements in building labs, beautification and expansion of the university as well as linkages with other institutions and governments. I'm hoping she will focus her energy in building a system and structure where students can make grievances known in very simple, formal and effective methods such as meetings, petitions and the like through their student body. It will also be in the best interest of everyone to review laws that exist in the University that violate fundamental human rights such as the freedom of expression.

Nationally I really won't go into much detail the absence of systems at our university is just a small splinter compared to the monstrosity of a problem Kenya faces. We all know we do not have a constitution that is functional. We have an unregulated legislature that is only effective in giving themselves hefty allowances; an inflated cabinet of 90 plus ministers and a disconnect between how its members of parliament are supposed to actually help their constituents lead better lives and access opportunities to empower and sustain themselves. Our leaders are so ignorant that some of them do not know they are part of a central government "thus making statements that they (MPs) should not be taxed because they don't trust the central government. They plunged the country in post election chaos because none of them could trust the judiciary to work out an election petition. They rubbished the electoral commission before and after the elections. So you can see how much we need to have leaders who believe in systems in laid down rules for government appointments, strengthened structures and restructuring of existing bodies in order to get things done through offices not through individuals and personalities.

Actually if our leaders were selfless it would not hurt so much because they would be governed by personal discipline and morality but as it is they are the greediest individuals ever.

In fact if I was to make an appeal to Kenyans it would be to vote the whole lot out at the earliest next available opportunity. I would also appeal to them not to attend the political rallies of these leaders who do not have their interest at heart.

I must say something though the Hon. Martha Karua is the one single leader I have heard insist on strengthening systems and structures as the way forward for the country over and over again as opposed to others who propose themselves and their personal abilities as the antidote for our ills. I think she has identified the Achilles heel of our nation.

However I'm not taking back what I said earlier. Vote out the whole lot. We all know what needs to be done and God knows we've given the same lot too many chances to get it right it's time they shipped out.

2 comments:

dennis brown said...

I believe students should opt for dialogue and not rioting,they should adopt a peacefull lifestyle,check related books on .http://www.booksfromus.co.ke/

John Paul Karijo said...

I totally agree Dennis.
You will be glad to know Kenyatta University has not had a strike since then and it is by far the most advanced and fastest developing university in the country and Prof. Olive Mugenda is really an icon in management.

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Loving life and living it. “Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regret. Appreciate your friends. Continue to learn. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is.” (Mary Anne Radmacher)
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