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Struggle between state control and autonomy is playing out at the University of Nairobi

A general view of University of Nairobi’s main campus in the city centre. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Since mid-January the University of Nairobi has been operating without a leader. This follows a decision by Kenya’s cabinet secretary for education to disband the institution’s council. He also rejected the institution’s appointment of a new vice-chancellor.

Two court injunctions have followed. The first suspended the government’s action. The second restrained the new vice chancellor of Kenya’s oldest university from

taking any action that would create tension at the institution.

The minister’s dramatic move highlights tensions between the government and universities. The government wants to control university affairs. Universities, meanwhile, want to safeguard their autonomy.

In an ideal context, both the state and universities would recognise and respect each other’s responsibilities. The state should provide financial resources and create a climate conducive for university internal self-governance. For their part, universities should ensure accountability to the public through appropriate teaching, research and service.

Where does academic freedom lie in this mix?

University autonomy has been the subject of debate for centuries. It is now generally viewed as being central to academic freedom. This includes the right to have control over internal academic activities. Universities across the world have used autonomy to insulate themselves from direct control by governments and others trying to exert control.

However, many governments have tried to exert pressure on universities to be more transparent and accountable for the public resources spent on them.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. Too much autonomy can lead to universities being unresponsive to the public. Too much accountability can destroy the academic values that universities ascribe to.

The tensions at Nairobi university underline these issues.

Governance reform

Kenya has around 60 universities, 37 public and 23 private. The state appoints chancellors and university councils for all public universities. This means that tensions over university autonomy are more intense in the public institutions.

Until 2002 the Kenyan head of state was the chancellor of all public universities. He appointed university councils, vice-chancellors and their deputies. This inevitably eroded institutional autonomy and compromised academic freedom.

After 2003 university councils took over the role. Councils advertised, vetted, conducted interviews and short-listed candidates. The final recommendation of vice-chancellor or deputy was sent to the cabinet secretary of education for appointment.

During this period universities were [financially healthy]. Most were generating income from, among other things, commercialisation of academic services. This income began to surpass government financial support.

What followed was a period during which university councils and administrators enjoyed a good measure of autonomy from the state. But it didn’t last.

University crises

The current threat to university autonomy has been triggered by a myriad of financial and administrative challenges.

For example, for the past three years some universities have been unable to finance basic operating expenses. These include salary payments. Revenue from new students has also fallen. This is because demand for higher education has shrunk.

Read more: Kenya's universities need deep reform -- not just a hike in fees

There have also been allegations of misappropriated finances. In addition, universities are weighed down by poor investment choices. Unviable satellite campuses and unjustified salary increases for administrators are also problematic.

The recruitment of vice-chancellors and their deputies has also concerned the government. A number of appointments have been annulled. In some cases the country’s courts have issued injunctions against them. The reasons have included accusations of political and tribal bias.

There have been other complaints against universities. Among them has been the failure by some councils to address ethnic and gender balance. This was behind the turning down of the University of Nairobi council’s appointment of deputy vice-chancellors.

Arising from these tensions, a significant portion of universities’ autonomy was taken away from them in 2018. An amendment to the University Act transferred the hiring of senior academic staff from councils to the Public Service Commission. The commission is the body responsible for the hiring and management of public civil servants.

Currently, the commission ranks candidates and forwards the shortlist to the university councils. The council appoints the candidates in consultation with the cabinet secretary of education.

But the public service commission has not successfully concluded any vice-chancellor or deputy searches. All their recommendations have been challenged in, or stayed by, courts.

By allowing non-university agencies to determine university leaders, Kenyan public universities have become exposed to politicisation and ideological manipulation. It has also undermined academic freedom.


The Kenyan case offers some useful lessons.

The first is that the threat to university autonomy can be both external and internal. Autonomy provides safeguards against vested external interests inimical to good academic order. But public universities invite the erosion of that autonomy by engaging in administrative misconduct.

For their part governments diminish the status of universities and limit space for quality education when they take over basic self-governing activities. These include the vetting and selection of university leaders.

Another important lesson is that university autonomy is linked to the prevailing political climate. Regimes with a long tradition of democracy provide a better environment. Kenya only began to embrace multiparty democracy in the 1990s. The tendency to dominate independent institutions like universities remains very real.

The answer is to develop a regulatory environment that promotes ethical internal self-governance within the universities. The state should focus on empowering institutions so that they can achieve their goals.

State interventions should never impede the power to determine the leaders, goals and academic programmes. A coordinating body to oversee funding and operations of state universities would provide a buffer against the political state.

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