The closure of two public universities in the past week over student riots takes us back to the days of instability in higher education institutions. In both instances at Kenyatta and Moi universities, students were sent home after a series of protests over fees and well-being on campus.
Closure of universities is disastrous as it is disruptive. Learners lose a lot of time, and this time out occasions a backlog of academic programmes, leading to pressure on academic staff who are forced into crash-teaching when learning resumes. The end result is that quality suffers. Not surprisingly, public universities are facing a credibility crisis, with concerns being raised over the quality of their graduates.
It is quite unfortunate that, just when we thought public universities were finally stabilising, they had to be closed due to student unrest. Clearly, there are fundamental and serious challenges afflicting universities that authorities have failed to tackle definitively over the years.
At the heart of the matter is financing of university education. Since government cut funding to public universities more than two decades ago and introduced cost-sharing, things have never been the same at these institutions. Loans and bursaries offered to students through the Higher Education Loans Board are never adequate, and often delay. And housing and accommodation are horrible on campus.
On their own, universities thrived for a period by raising cash from fee-paying students under parallel degree programmes. However, the taps have since dried up after cheating was eliminated at Form Four, thereby dramatically reducing the number of university qualifiers. The challenge for the government and universities is to find long-lasting solutions to the crises facing the institutions. We must seek practical models that can make the universities sustainable. Closures are not the cure. Viable options on funding have to be established. And managers have to learn to engage and dialogue with students.