University of Nairobi (UoN) Vice-Chancellor Stephen Kiama has recently come under fire for reforms at the institution, including doubling of fees for certain degree programmes.
Prof Kiama spoke to the Business Daily on why he maintains the reforms are necessary for UoN’s sustainability.
YOU HAVE ABOLISHED OFFICES, MERGED FUNCTIONS AND CREATED NEW POSTS IN A MOVE TO ELIMINATE DUPLICATION AND CUT COSTS. WHAT’S THE PROJECTED SAVING OUT OF THESE STRUCTURAL AND GOVERNANCE REFORMS?
We are yet to simulate the numbers but are working on it. We are now actualising the new governance structure following its approval. The next step will be the finance officer engaging the various units on quick allocation budget.
Then we start comparing the figures on allocation this year and that of previous years. Since we have fewer administration units, it means our costs will come down.
ARE THE REFORMS A RESULT OF PRESSURE FROM THE IMF?
The reforms are not from pressure from the IMF. We started debating on them from last year, right from my installation as VC. We are glad we talking the same language with government and IMF on sustainability. It is an interesting coincidence.
YOU HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF NOT CONSULTING ACROSS THE BOARD BEFORE ANNOUNCING REFORMS. IT IS SAID THAT THESE ARE TOP-DOWN REFORMS BEING IMPOSED BY THE MANAGEMENT. ARE YOU A DICTATOR?
No. The university runs through a very elaborate system of consultation involving committees. But since I came in fortunately, I developed another system besides the various committees. I talk to staff directly so that they give ideas and I listen too to the dissenting voices.
While the committee systems are working efficiently, I came in and decided to consult even more. So we have been able to achieve quite a lot within a very short time through that consultation with staff, including moving to online learning.
I listened to staff complaints that the university is top-heavy and bureaucratic. Then they suggested we reduce the numbers, but when I respond, there are some people who were dislodged from their comfort zones so they said they weren’t consulted.
YOU HAVE REVIEWED UPWARD THE TUITION FEES FOR POSTGRADUATE COURSES AND PARALLEL DEGREES. WHY THE HUGE FEES JUMP AND WHY NOW?
The UoN has been operating under a huge deficit and this is in the public domain. We owe the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) Sh7.2 billion and have staff pension arrears of slightly over Sh4 billion.
This has come as a result of us not costing our services. Over the years the university has continued to develop many programmes to bring students on Module II with the assumption that government would subsidise those students.
So we have been undercharging them thinking that that we’d use the money government is paying for regular students to cover the deficit. This fee adjustment applies to new students and they can pay in instalments.
WON’T THIS LOCK OUT POOR STUDENTS FROM UNIVERSITY EDUCATION?
No, no, no. The UoN is a public institution and students can access it through bursaries, scholarship by government and other organisations or support from parents and guardians. Nobody is going to be locked out if they passed their KCSE. If you are placed here by KUCCPS, the government pays that fees and we are not going to touch that.
If somebody did not get to be qualified through the government scholarship system or didn’t get bursary from the CDF, they join us through Module II. Here you pay the fees that scholarship or government pays for the regular students.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON INCREASING FEES FOR REGULAR STUDENTS?
The differentiated unit cost (DUC) model which guides government capitation for university education. We are tied to that and the much we can do is to ask for more money from the government.
Being a public university we can’t increase fees unless it’s discussed and there’s consensus. It would probably be better if the government just enhanced the capitation.
HOW DOES THE DUC MODEL WORK?
It categorises university programmes into 14 clusters. The cheapest programme costs about Sh144,000 and most expensive is around Sh600,000.
The cost is pegged on lab use, the field work, student-teacher ratio and number of hours in a course. This means that the cost of studying Dentistry will be different from Geography, which requires field work, and General Arts.
THE STAFF RATIOS FOR UON DO NOT COMPLY WITH INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS OF 70 PERCENT ACADEMIC STAFF AND 30 PERCENT NON-TEACHING STAFF. WHAT PLANS ARE IN PLACE TO CONFORM TO BEST INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS?
The ratio thing is just a theory propagated by people who don’t know how universities run. UoN is heavy on technical programmes that need support staff.
An example is the Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine where alongside the lecturer, you need lab technicians and farm workers that milk, feed livestock as well as cleaners for the cowshed. So how do you go into ratios now? You go to Agriculture, to Engineering, to Medicine and all these require a lot of technical staff to support your students.
The university loaded on itself accommodation and catering for students, which require administrative staff. But this is something to be relooked moving forward.
TOP UNIVERSITIES LIKE HARVARD, YALE AND STANFORD HAVE ESTABLISHED ENDOWMENT FUNDS FOR THEIR OPERATIONS. IS THE UON THINKING OF GOING THIS DIRECTION?
We are working towards establishing a foundation here. The council is completely on this matter to do a foundation which will now raise endowment fund to support scholarships and other co-mandates of the university. This is something we ought to have done a long time ago.
We’ve catalysed the process actually; before the last Covid-19 wave, we had started planning on converging our alumni, many of who are CEOs, so we start that discussion on nurturing that endowment fund.
CURRENTLY WHAT’S UON’S ACCOMMODATION CAPACITY FOR ITS STUDENTS AND ARE THERE PLANS TO EXPAND THIS? SHOULD WE EXPECT AN INCREASE IN ACCOMMODATION CHARGES?
We have a huge accommodation problem. Of our 55,000 students we are only able to accommodate slightly more than 10,000. So the other 45,000 have to find spaces all over town.
Students rent varies from hostel to hostel. Rates are Sh10 or Sh20 a day and adjusting this upwards could be a recipe for student apathy. We no longer accommodate students in Prefabs because of the risk of fire.
To expand our capacities, we’ve tried to engage through public private partnerships (PPP) over the years but it’s a bit complicated and haven’t succeeded.
We are now trying to get investors to see if there’s someone who can put money here without engaging so much in the PPP, but we are sensitive to the danger of it. I even made an appeal to alumni to try and support that.
WHAT OTHER PLANS ARE IN PLACE TO ACHIEVE SUSTAINABILITY ASIDE FROM FEE ADJUSTMENT?
We are moving to better staff management to maximise productivity. We have put all our finance administration on e-banking for easy monitoring and traceability. We’ve also moved to ensure our resources are managed properly by tying our expenditure, income and cash flow.
Additionally, we’ve asked that staff report to work at appropriate time to eliminate the need to pay for overtime. We are also managing water, electricity and cleaning bills. We are also supporting our staff to write proposals that win money.