MPs reject bill aimed at curtailing university autonomy

Kenya’s parliament has rejected a legal framework that would have given the cabinet secretary for education sweeping powers in the appointment of vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, principals of university constituent colleges and members of university councils in public universities.

If the members of parliament, or MPs, had assented to the Universities Amendment Bill 2021, the cabinet secretary would have acquired the authority to revoke appointments, transfer or sack such office bearers and even set aside decisions of senates and university councils.

In order to achieve that objective, the cabinet secretary would have acquired powers to appoint and control selection panels for the appointment of the top university officials.

In total, the bill had 20 amendments which, according to MP Amos Kimunya, the leader of the majority Jubilee Party in parliament, were meant to improve governance in higher education.

But MPs who were debating the bill on its third reading on 7 June argued that the amendments were unconstitutional as there had been no public participation on those issues.

“We are aware that other stakeholders in higher education were not consulted,” said Kimani Ichung’wah, another MP.

A matter of ‘great public interest’

Many MPs were opposed to suggestions to restructure the Universities Fund, a facility that was established to raise funds for public universities and to start providing resources to private universities that admitted government-sponsored students.

MPs said it would be illegal to use public money to support for-profit private universities, as that would lead to defunding public universities that are currently in a financial crisis.

In his ruling, the speaker of the national assembly, Justin Muturi, concurred with the MPs and said the suggested amendments had failed to meet the threshold of the provisions of the Kenyan Constitution in terms of public participation in matters of great public interest. He said stakeholders in the higher education sector were not given an opportunity to express themselves on the proposed changes.

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