Society / Education
Wednesday, 11 Jan 2017 13:43 EATnewsdesk@kenyafreepress.com
Students at Maasai Mara University in Narok are waging a tough battle to push back against the dictates of the university administration amid growing tensions over rampant cancellation of classes due to the absence of lecturers who have absconded duty for non-payment of dues, financial mismanagement and massive crackdown on dissident students by a small team of administrators on whose shoulders the entire administration now falls.
Relations between the university administration on the one hand and students and non-academic staff on the other is at an all-time low, with the students accusing the administration of heavy-handed approach in dealing with their grievances. Vice-Chancellor Prof Mary Walingo’s leadership style has come under scrutiny as a mix of academic, financial and administrative problems threaten the smooth running of the institution.
In November, students at the Main Campus went on a day-long strike after the university failed to address their grievances over several months. Many had been on campus for over three months and never had a single class in some course units because there were no lecturers to teach them. Following incessant demands by class representatives for lecturers to be available, the administration resorted to intimidating the reps, a few of whom were suspended or facing disciplinary action.
According to a number of student leaders who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, the university’s decision-making organs have resorted to heavy-handedness to camouflage the inability of key office-holders to make important decisions. Most of the administrators, including deans of schools, are serving in acting capacity and therefore restrain themselves from decisions that could infuriate the vice chancellor.
The Senate which comprises of all the deans of schools, the dean of students and some chief officers for legal affairs, academic and security, is all but moribund, its powers exercised largely by Prof. Walingo herself and the academic registrar, Dr Fredrick Otieno, whose mandate it is to communicate the senate's decisions to students.
To the student leaders, the moribund senate has also undermined its standing by communicating contradicting information at times. For example, after the university was closed on November 17 following the strike, the senate met on November 30, after which Dr Otieno wrote a memo asking students to report back on Tuesday December 6.
The memo set three pre-conditions to the returning students:-
1. Clearance of all fee arrears,
2. Signing a Good Conduct Bond,
3. Payment of Sh5,000 for damages.
Less than 24 hours later, the registrar wrote another memo nullifying the previous one. “Please note that a slight variation is expected to be made on the actual opening dates and students are therefore requested to await further communication from the University,” the new memo said. The first memo had issued late in the evening after the senate meeting, according to our sources, but the second one was issued the next day after some officials had allegedly changed their minds about the re-opening and made an about-turn without a full senate meeting.
The re-opening was eventually put on hold for a whole month, until January 6 and 7, by which time some student leaders had informed the administration that the Sh5,000 penalty was too high. The students claim that only “minimal” damage was done on the university facilities, since police officers who were called in to quell the protests gave them only five minutes to pack their belongings and leave the campus. One of them told the Kenya Free Press: "The only known damage were broken windows of the dining hall and a little guardhouse in the campus."
The students and some non-teaching staff members claim the university saw the strike as an opportunity to raise funds for paying lecturers and meeting other obligations whose budgets have been misappropriated. The penalty of Sh5,000 to about 8,000 students at the Main Campus amounts to Sh40 million, which, if spent exclusively on clearing the part-time lecturers' pay, would still leave a deficit of Sh30 million as the teachers were owed Sh70 million by the time of the strike in November.
Since the students began reporting on 6th and 7th January, more management's inefficiencies have been laid bare, with a good number of those who paid their fees way back in September being informed that their fee payments had not been reflected in the financial records. A number of students had to travel back to their homes including Kisii and even Nyeri to get their fee receipts from September for accounts clerks to acertain that they had indeed paid the fees. Those who didn't have receipts were forced to pay afresh since the university was not allowing any student to register without clearing all fee arrears.
To compound the problem, some of those who paid the Sh5,000 penalty using the university's Mpesa pay bill number couldn't register on the first day since the clerks claimed that their payment records were not reflecting on the university's systems. Dozens of such students were sent back sent away and asked to report back this Monday or Tuesday when, hopefully, the payments would have reached the institution's bank accounts.
However, many students found this hitch bizarre as records of MPesa transactions are shared in real time with the institutions using the service. The Kenya Free Press could not verify allegations that the university runs a weak accounting system that is easily compromised by unscrupulous clerks, hence the need for paper-based verification. Tensions remain high at the campus with the students saying they are being surcharged for damages not done yet the university has not addressed any of the grievaces over which they went on strike in the first place.
The shortage of lecturers has persisted, as part time lecturers have continued to boycott classes until their arrears are paid in full. Some of them have not bee paid since 2013. In some courses, lecturers have not taught even a single class since the current semesters began last September, albeit with interruption following the November strike. The students are now required to do exams for units have never been taught at all.
The crisis of teaching is so grave that some third year students have not gone for industrial attachment, which is mandatory for progression to the fourth year, yet those who started courses a semester behind them have. But instead of addressing these grievances, some students have been suspended and others summoned to appear before the authorities for disciplinary action.
The registrar Dr Otieno communicates the senate's punitive decisions, but student representatives have not been allowed to sit in the senate during the recent major decisions as required by law governing higher education. The registrar is the administration's conduit with students, but he has made many unfulfilled promises that many of his recent promises to tackle issues carry limited credibility with the students, a development to which he allegedly has responded by intimidating their leaders.
The university has had challenges recruiting lecturers, a crisis that in 2012 led it to promote a casual non-professional staffer with a poor high school certificate to the position of lecturer. The man recruited and taught students for over a year.
The university did not respond to questions for this article.