African Universities Bogged Down by Politics of Patronage

Written by on June 17, 2018

In a move that should not surprise anyone, the Jubilee government wants the Public Service Commission (PSC) given the mandate to employ VCs, deputy VCs and principals of constituent colleges.

This will reduce councils’ role to mere ‘mascots’ in running universities and will further undermine the autonomy of universities in Kenya.

The increased politicisation and invasive State interference was equally demonstrated in a recent Bill which stripped students of the powers to directly elect their leaders, and instead, arrogated that responsibility to a students’ electoral college.

The obsession with attempting to tinker with university leadership is a common, yet annoying problem in Africa. There is a historical pattern.

Troubled Leadership

Most of Africa’s political and economic elites retain a keen interest in determining how universities’ leadership is constituted. More student activities at universities are being organised along political party lines, which attest to new forms of politicisation.

Political interference in Africa’s universities is not new. Universities’ governance was seen as “captured” for narrow political rather than academic ends during the 1980s and 1990s. Politics shaped everything: patterns of student access, curriculum content and teaching methods. Vice-chancellors’ political affiliations mattered far more than their academic standing.

The continent’s universities started changing from the mid-90s. Strong governance structures were prioritised. But studies funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by the Council for the Development of Social Sciences in Africa (Codesria) suggest that not much changed. The governance and leadership of universities in several countries remain troubled.

Research suggests there is only a cosmetic autonomy at most universities in Africa. Some trends are deeply worrying.

First, Africa’s politicians still see universities as critical outposts for building political clients. They have a deep interest in who becomes a vice-chancellor. They want to manage who ascends the academic ranks and who serves in student leadership. On the surface, universities’ governance organs appear free to make decisions about academic and leadership appointments. In truth, opaque networks rather than merit determine such appointments at all levels.

It goes further. Universities have money to spend on procuring goods and services. This attracts businesspeople and ‘tenderpreneurs’. Politicians encourage university leaders to employ service providers from their own networks. These practices have turned some vice-chancellors’ offices into dealership kiosks.  Vice-chancellors also appear to have become more autocratic. Staff and students are routinely subjected to unfair disciplinary processes.

Some extend favours to certain internal “clients” – academics – by appointing them to lucrative administrative positions or promoting them without merit. Such positions are highly sought after because they pay better than teaching.

Our research found that many African universities rely on younger academics to occupy senior teaching, research and administrative posts. This cadre lacks the courage or experience to confront a university management gone rogue.

So what’s gone wrong? Part of the problem stems from how “politics” was conceptualised and defined as a problem in university governance. If a country’s president was also a public university chancellor, this was seen as political interference.

Logically, then, people thought that cutting such visible political links would settle governance issues.

But political interests run far beyond the presidency. Most of Africa’s political and economic elites retain a keen interest in determining how universities’ leadership is constituted. In Kenya, devolution has worsened the interference and county governments developed a disturbing sense of entitlement over the running of universities. In such a context, a university VC will privilege a meeting with MCAs, over one with his own long-suffering academic staff.

There was also an assumption that academics would meaningfully and responsibly utilise their new autonomy. The hope was that they’d emerge as protectors and promoters of the greater public good in higher education. This hasn’t been the case.

Public Scrutiny

Codesria’s research found that many senior academics have embraced post-1990s reforms only if these offer a stream of extra income. Most academics prefer administrative to academic appointments because these are more lucrative. This has left most institutions without an experienced professoriate.

Here the continent’s older institutions – like the universities of Ibadan, Legon, Nairobi, Makerere and Dar es Salaam – have fared better than newcomers. Older universities tend to have a greater number of highly trained academics in their service.

Younger institutions tend to be battling most with governance and management issues. They are a little more than glorified high schools.

There are several ways to start making universities’ “autonomous” from politics. University managers must be required by law to open up their systems to broad public scrutiny.

They should conduct some aspects of their affairs through public hearings. Interviews of prospective VCs and senior professors must be done publicly. These institutions are, after all, public.

Another area that needs attention is data governance: the collection, storage and dissemination of data for decision-making. Our research has found that most African universities are strangely casual about data.

There’s no accurate record of admissions, so no plans are made about building infrastructure to keep up with student numbers. This comes at a time when the use of open data is being encouraged as a benchmark for university quality. Better data governance structures would lessen the chances of backroom deals and political interference in the running of Africa’s universities.

– Prof Oanda is Programme officer for research at Codesria. Dr Omanga is a lecturer at Moi University. A version of this article previously appeared in The Conversation.

This article was compiled and written by By Ibrahim Omanda and Duncan Omanga and is published on originally on The Standard Digital

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