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COMMERCIALISATION: Why many Universities in Kenya are collapsing, Dr. Wandia Njoya

By Dr. Wandia Njoya

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Ten years ago I was saying that lecturers should not accept the commercialization of universities. But they were bribed into silence with payments from parallel programs. So the collapse of universities was inevitable.

You want to understand how?

In the Kibaki years, universities accepted that they could make money instead of relying on the exchequer. That small acceptance is like the story of the camel that asked the tent owner to cover his head, then cover the neck, then eventually the camel took over the tent.

The problem of commercializing universities is that 1) lecturers suck at business 2) the university starts spending on administrative fluff. This principle was explained by Graeber: the more you adopt market forces, the more your admin and bullshit jobs increase.

Accepting the neoliberal pact meant that VCs started to behave as CEOs. They needed a crowd of PAs, secretaries, body guards and limosines. Unis paid the cons called business consultants to tell them how to streamline university operations. Money was spent on ISO certification.

Let me use marketing as an example of extra expense.

Universities are supposed to make their names known by 1) their graduates 2) their professors. So theyre supposed to hire professors based on the research and public profile best demonstrates the rigor and output of the uni.

In other words, the university markets itself through its own work. Think: did people like Okoth Okombo, Bethwell Ogot or Maria Nzomo need to advertise? You just read them, saw them and felt their impact.

With marketing, the promotion went to people employed to do nothing else. That means that a university has to employ an extra department with its own budget (many times larger than that of academic departments) for tshirts & promotional materials, paid advertisements etc. Faculty had to spend less time on teaching and research and more on marketing.

Lecturers found themselves with more paperwork for the many admins implementing performance management and marketing strategies. The work was overwhelming and alot of it useless, but guess how the lecturers were bribed into silence.

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Parallel programmes! 🥳🎊🎉💲

Parallel programmes were about, again, increasing number of paying students (universities don’t know any other revenue stream). To teach more students, the universities paid the lecturers as extra income on top of their salaries. That’s where everything headed south.

Some of you may say: why not start an income generating project on the side?

That proposal has the same problem I’m talking about. First, you are now forcing people who should be teaching and doing research to do side hustles for the uni like bottling water and raising chicken.

Second, and this, many Kenyans forget.

Side hustles cost money. If, for example, we decide that chicken farming can make money, it means that the money for textbooks and field trips is going to buying chicken feed and other essentials, at least until the farm turns a profit. And even if the chicken farms turns a profit, that money has to be ploughed back into the chicken farm if we want to expand it. So really, the side hustle will spend more than give university money for research and learning.

The third effect is the famous one we all know.


Professors spending so much time doing ka-ching ka-ching, cutting deals with businesses, stray away from the core function of the university and forget what the money was supposed to be for.

Donor funding works in the same way. With donors, as Benjamin Ginsberg said, you need to establish donor relations officers and divert money for teaching and learning to cocktails and ballroom dancing for donors.

The research was already there to warn us. But remember that lecturers have been bribed into silence by parallel programme payments. So they were not going to say anything as the universities deteriorated. They didn’t research to see all the warning signs that are in the research from US, Australia and other Anglo scholars.

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This model of running unis was never going to be unsustainable. Universities have to be a public good. If lecturers serve the public through education and intellectual engagement, no govt would defund unis without suffering political backlash. But lecturers preferred fast cash.

Lecturers need a soul searching. Get new UASU leaders. Relearn public good. The economics departments should ask Ndii or Kwame Owino how to read GoK economic data, and then tell us how money for presidential globe trotting and other silliness can pay for public education.

Any attempt to make lecturers both teachers and side hustlers ends up being more expensive than generating money, and then actual education suffers. We don’t see that because we Kenyans also glorify the side hustle. But we should not. We hustle because the economy is bad. Not because we’re entrepreneurs.

Also, THE MEDIA IS NOT OUR FRIEND. This whole mess was also possible because the media kept spreading propaganda about unis and we never stood up to it. It was media that celebrated the new campuses and frivolous new degrees because they were earning money from the advertising. Remember those spread sheets in the newspapers with photos of university admins and lots of speeches? Those did not come not free of charge.

So universities are collapsing today because they were corrupted from within, and slowly the rot spread. Media benefitted. VC’s and administrative staff benefitted. Business consultancies, lecturers benefitted.

People just treated universities as a never ending money resource. Nobody cared that university cultures were deteriorating and students were not getting the robust, intellectual engagement they deserved, to become creative and innovative. The media kept pounding us with the useless story of graduates, to deflect attention from the real culprit.

Some people asked me how universities can be financially self sustaining. They cannot. There is no university in the world, from time in memorial, that sustained itself on generating income. The libraries and scholars in Timbuktu lived on sponsorship from the surrounding kingdoms and visits from far lands. In Europe, they got land and grants from lords and governments. The Harvards benefitted from slavery and money from slave holders. When the Medici family was sponsoring Galileo, the return on investment was the cultural power the artists and scientists generated. It wasn’t profit on the balance sheet. So this evil idea that we can measure universities by return on investment is the camel that sticks its head in the tent. Once you let the camel in, the camel never has enough.

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Universities started as places to exchange knowledge and for societies to interact with and understand the world. The idea of graduates getting jobs based on universities started in the 19th century. The aristocracy wanted to distract the growing bourgoisie by giving them a taste of university prestige and sending those out to build empires. Kenya got it pretty bad because the Kenya colony had the highest number of public school, Oxbridge graduates of any African colony. So universities, as we inherited them from the British, were civil servant producing machines.

Kenyan lecturers, and all Kenyans, need to do a major soul searching. I have suggested removing university certification and banning employment that requires it. Let people come to university to learn because they want to, and in fact, the creativity and innovation will explode because people will think and innovate because they want to. Let’s have a system where different fields apprentice and grow professionals on the job.

But I can tell you why the ruling class and civil service (including the bulk of lecturers) won’t like that. They’ll have no power to control what we think.

Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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