Whether the proposed merger of Kenyan universities is a good or bad thing can be better assessed in the context of its objectives, goals or aims.
Considering that the merging debate is the initiative of the government who is the primary financier of university education, we can continue this discussion from the premise that the high cost of university education is the single largest consideration in the proposed mergers among Kenyan universities.
Granted, there are probably many other considerations. There is then the question of whether mergers is the best option from a cost-cutting perspective, but then again, what are the other options?
We approach this analysis from an imagined case study of merging three Kenyan public universities with student populations of 50,000; 30,000; and 10,000 respectively, with the first one becoming the mother university and the other two becoming constituent colleges of the first one.
Areas of possible cost reduction can be broadly categorized into two: administrative and academic. Administrative cost savings strategies will include elimination of two positions of vice-chancellor (VC) with their attendant costs, and replacing them with two positions of principals with their attendant costs.
The real issue then becomes the difference in pay packages between vice-chancellors and principals. This argument is then extended to collapsing of the nine deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) positions in the three universities to give way for only three DVCs at the mother university.
This is then followed by collapsing the nine university registrar positions to only three at the mother university. Six college registrar positions are then created at the two colleges. This scenario probably pertains downwards throughout the hierarchy of university and college administration. We will leave the rest to the imaginations of the reader.
A more rigorous research exercise will calculate potential cost savings as they relate to administrative costs under this scenario, while a deeper analysis will inform whether or not there is any significant negative impact on the quality of those alternative administrative structures, and if there are, whether there are any opportunity costs.
Parallel to administrative costs are academic costs, defined as costs of teaching and learning. If the three merging institutions already observe existing Commission for University Education (CUE) guidelines on staff:student ratio of 1:50 for regular lectures and 1:20 for practical courses, then the merger is unlikely to change anything significant related to academic costs.
For example, if the 90,000 student population under the merger receive 50%:50%, lecture:practicals ratio, with each student taking an average of six units per semester, then 5,400 lecture units will be offered against 13,500 practical units.
With an average teaching load of five units per lecturer, per semester, the merged mother university will need 1,080 regular lecturers and 2,700 practicals lecturers, for a total of 3,780 lecturers.
This scenario is likely to obtains both before and after the merger, with no cost difference between the two scenarios of merger or no merger. So, from the academic angle of things, merging universities will not result in any cost savings under this model.
Whether or not there are significant overall cost savings in merging Kenyan universities calls for a more exact research that needs to be commissioned by the primary stakeholders in the matter. Whether the resultant cost savings justify the major reshuffle that comes with university mergers is a matter that should be approached with sobriety devoid of political overtones.
Prof Atieno Amadi is the vice chancellor, Great Lakes University of Kisumu.