Nairobi — Sex crisis is creeping up on public universities, posing a threat to young female students and the integrity of examination results, writes BILLY MUIRURI.Even the humour associated with the problem - marks unfairly awarded in exchange for favours, referred to as sexually transmitted grades - shows a community used to living with an acknowledged, but vigorously fought, problem.
None of the institutions has developed effective ways of protecting students from predatory teachers.
A lecturer at a public university during a classroom session. Photos/Jacob Owiti
"Many sexual cases go unreported. Many students do not know the channel to follow in reporting sexual blackmail. Without enough evidence, it becomes hard to pin down suspects," said Kenyatta University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Olive Mugenda.
Her institution is tackling the problem, and others faced by vulnerable young girls, by putting up formal and informal structures.
"We have a caucus of lady professors who counsel female students on social and academic issues," Prof Mugenda said. The Senate, she said, has a special committee on sexual harassment.
University records, however, show that no lecturer has been removed purely for sexual offences in the past 10 years.
The University of Nairobi has a stronger record of dealing with sexual misconduct. A lecturer at its Kikuyu campus was sacked in 2002 and two others were dismissed at the Main Campus last year over sexual allegations.
At Egerton University, which in 1999 suffered one of the most embarrassing sex-for-marks scandals, in which six lecturers were sacked and a horde of students expelled, the Vice-Chancellor, Prof James Tuitoek, said sexual misconduct is at times a two-way crime: Students can at times prey on a lecturer.
Interviews with students, their leaders and university managers showed a pattern of a problem more prevalent in departments which teach social sciences. Nairobi and Maseno universities appear to be particularly affected while the cases are fewer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
"Our courses are very practical. Having a lecturer for a lover does not make one more practical," JKUAT spokesperson Michael Ngonyo said.
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nick Wanjohi, was defensive of his student community. "We admitted students who scored very well in KCSE. Most are disciplined and spend most of their time in laboratories or workshops."
The student unions, which are typically militant in defending students' rights, have been noticeably ineffective in articulating concerns over sexual misconduct.
They blame universities for relying on archaic regulations to deal with emerging social issues on campus.
"The challenges we face are dynamic but our universities still maintain the same old culture of doing things," said Mr Bernard Adhiambo, the secretary general of Sonu, the students' union at Nairobi.
Union leaderships also accuse university administrations of being slow in responding to student concerns. Yet some students point an accusing finger at the union leaders themselves, claiming they are part of the sex problem.
The student union leader at Kenyatta, Mr John Kagucha, said some leaders are either intimidated by wayward lecturers or play a willing role in covering up scandals.
"Some leaders are bribed to lead female students to lecturers' nets. They are then bought beer and given soft loans," said Mr Kaguchia, the Keusa chairman.
The main question is whether the unfair award of marks and other consequences of sexual misconduct are widespread and serious enough to affect the general quality of qualifications conferred by universities and whether nationally there are mechanisms for arresting the situation.
Because of the way universities are legally set up (each is governed by its own Act of Parliament), there is little room for external intervention.
The Commission for Higher Education, the only body set up to regulate universities, has no authority to deal with issues affecting public universities. Its mandate is limited to supervising and regulating the quality of courses offered by private universities.
"We do not have the legal teeth to intervene in affairs of public universities. On the other hand, cases of sexual harassment in private universities are very rare," said the commission's spokesperson, Mrs Eliza Chege.
However, she noted that the so-called sexually transmitted grades had the potential to affect the overall quality and integrity of the degree certificate. The dilemma is such that the commission does not have the authority to nullify a certificate, even if results were not merited.
"What we can do is revoke the charter of the university if the vice is rampant. It is very hard to take such a drastic action," she said.
The commission does not have a sexual harassment policy but a code of conduct among students and staff is enshrined in its management and governance policy. Lecturers and university authorities are united in their belief that misconduct is futile because the examination system, as a whole, is incorruptible. "A student cannot sleep her way to a good degree. Sexual favours can only affect a few course units. No learner would be able to corrupt all the lecturers who teach her," said Dr Edwin Gimode, dean of students at Kenyatta.
Dr Kenneth Ombongi of the University of Nairobi's history department said examination malpractices were ruthlessly punished in all universities. "Testing and marking are strictly carried out. External examiners also come in and their verdict overrides that of course lecturers," he said.
Questions have, however, been raised as to the efficiency of external examiners as guarantors of quality. Do they carefully remark all the examination scripts?
A lecturer at Moi University's Chepkoilel Campus said external examiners often marked only a sample. Then there is the question of why a student whose grades are fine would succumb to unwanted advances.
"They do it out of sheer ignorance. Many are desperate to pass due to the high fees they pay. Competition is high and some feel they are not competent," said Dr William Gisesa.
The lecturers' union, Uasu, is concerned that employers could be losing confidence in degree certificates.
"We receive many letters from students who ask us to tame some of our members. These allegations are a big let-down to our profession and academic integrity," said the union's secretary- general, Dr Muga K'Olale.