Universities Act, 2016 – The era of impotent student activism is here

Student leaders everywhere were quiet – deliberately or out of naivety – as universities schemed with Parliament to pass the Act, which grants the institutions limitless control over the affairs of student bodies

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By Kenyatta Otieno

Public universities have begun implementing the Universities Act 2016 which amended some clauses to the original Act of 2012. The 2012 Act was enacted by parliament to align our institutions of higher learning to the realities of the 2010 Constitution. The bone of contention is the sneaking into the Act clauses on how student unions should hold their elections and run office.

I want to draw on my experience as a student leader in my day, to explain current realities. In 2000 when I was suspended from the University of Nairobi as part of SONU executive Committee, and the union banned by University Senate, our secretary-general George Omondi, out of a stroke of genius, was quoted in the local press describing the ban a bluff. The university, he said, cannot ban what its statutes did not create. Apparently SONU was nowhere in the UoN statutes. The Senate did not budge but these recent developments prove they took note.

The Act of 2012 stipulates in Section 41 that 1) every university shall have a Student Association. In subsection 2, it says the Student Council (not Association) in conjunction with the Senate shall plan student activities that promote academic, spiritual, moral and harmonious communal life and social well-being of the students.  The original Act specifies the roles of the student association in general without getting into the structure and elections of officials, only emphasising on the two-thirds gender rule.

The amendment of 2016 gets into the nuts and bolts of student politics –  subsection 1(a) to indicate that a student council will have a chair, vice chairman, secretary and three other members to represent special interests. Part 1(b) insists that officials “shall be elected according to this Act, and its membership shall reflect national diversity and adhere to the one third gender balance rule”. The subsequent sections say elections shall be through Electoral College and not the usual universal suffrage. A student is only allowed to serve for a maximum of two terms, among others.

So what?

I do not have a problem with the letter of legislation. Its spirit and the manner in which those amendments were pushed that get my goat. Students should have been consulted to give their input before a law that will not differentiate between how students of Kibabii University with one campus and a complex university like The University of Nairobi run their affairs is slapped on them. The University Councils should have been left to get into the nuts and bolts in line with the specifics of their universities instead of a one-jacket-fits all approach. I wouldn’t have a problem if this was a result of bottom up approach. The assumption that students do not know how their union should be governed is wrong and malicious. They did not refuse to be guided.

The good

I was elected as one of seven Campus Representatives to the SONU Executive, so I only campaigned in my campus. Contestants for the top five posts had to campaign in all the seven campuses which required a generous amount of resources. This is where university administration and politicians took advantage of by financing campaigns with the aim of exercising influence over the union. To this end, I back the provision for an Electoral College for voting for the Student Council; however, a campus can elect leaders by popular vote in the campus-based union who will later form an electoral college. This serves universities with many units like UoN and Kenyatta University.

The bad bit is stipulating the number of officials to serve in the union among other details, which are best left to by-laws. At the turn of the millennium, we had a 12-member SONU executive. In 2003 when SONU was reinstated, the number rose to about thirty to take care of selfish interests from student activists. The Act overstepped in insisting on a six member student council which is against the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex. This legislation is concerning itself with small things. An association should be left to come up with regulations that suit its needs.

How did we end up here?

Why are students quiet while their university administrations conspire with the legislature to control how they conduct their affairs down to finer details? We were suspended for our insistence that the UoN was rolling out the parallel degree program in the wrong manner. I will acknowledge our naivety but not the content of our contention. Our problem was only with how the programme was being implemented not its abolition. Such an Act of parliament to regulate the admission of parallel degree program across the board should have solved the problem.

CS Fred Matiang’i’s tenure at the Ministry of Education ended the greed that fuelled parallel degree programmes. Before him, the rules of marking KCSE were relaxed so that many students passed. The cut-off point was raised so as to leave many students with B- and C+ grades with the option of going for parallel degree programme. The past two years has seen only the number of students scoring C+ and above match available places in public universities. Parallel degree programmes changed the dynamics in universities – especially UoN – in many ways.

We used to take two years before joining campus. With a parallel programme, a classmate you beat in class will join immediately, and you will find them in third year just as you join first year. These parallel program students also came from middle class homes where they could afford the little luxuries that impress on their regular programme colleagues. This made students in the regular program to shun activism, and if one joined student leadership, it was more for the benefits that come with it than standing in beliefs that shaped leadership in our times. This was in an attempt to catch up with peers who were now in the job market.

Then the admission changed so that, currently, students join a few months after KCSE results are released. This means that a good number of students joined university even before they acquired national identity cards. This is the age that Babu Owino, who was around thirty years old then, ran roughshod over to stay at the helm of SONU for four years. By the time they were coming of age and understanding how things work around campus, they were preparing for their final year.

This is the time university administrations took advantage to fill the student unions with leaders who they could manipulate but who later turn rogue on them. I am not shocked that no student union came up to register displeasure with this law before it was passed in parliament. The times have changed from our time of active activism to the Babu Owino era of celebrity leaders and outright manipulation of election results. Active student activism, which was conscious of national issues, could not have missed the passing of that bill in parliament. This generation died with Oulu GPO in 2009 and was buried with Christopher “Karl Marx” Owiro in 2013.

Something tells me these amendments emanated from the University of Nairobi. This is due to their experience of handling SONU since 2003 and a response to their inability to handle Babu Owino as SONU chairman. Now all universities are going ahead to implement the law. Few people are registering displeasure that now universities are likely to run roughshod over student unions, but time will tell. I will watch eagerly to see how this generation of students responds to the new laws. ^

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