Top university managers and lecturers risk losing jobs as the government begins drastic reforms in higher education that will see some institutions shut down or merged with others.
The reforms have been necessitated by the high cost of running the universities at a time when the government is reducing capitation due to budgetary constraints.
Universities are also suffering from the effects of declining enrolment following curbs in high school examinations cheating, which had created a false admissions boom over the years.
Reduced enrolment has led to decreased revenues for universities, most of which are reeling under huge debts, inadequate facilities and fewer lecturers.
But vice-chancellors of public universities Thursday put up a spirited fight against the merger plans, saying at a meeting with Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha that the exercise was being hurried without proper consultations.
The VCs also complained that the government had been talking to itself while designing the process and wondered where students leaving secondary schools under the 100 per cent transition programme would go.
During the meeting, Prof Magoha ruled out any extra funding for the institutions, saying they will have to work with the Sh97 billion that was allocated to them in the budget.
At the same time, the Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu) opposed the merger plan, saying it was punitive and risked undermining higher education. Secretary-general Constantine Wasonga wondered how merging broke universities would make them financially sound. Dr Wasonga said the universities were established and chartered by the government, and wondered why the same government was now turning around to close them.
"The mergers will affect jobs, and as a union we will oppose them at all cost," said Dr Wasonga, accusing the government of failing to provide enough resources to the institutions.
He asked Prof Magoha to consult widely, insisting that the universities have invested a lot and such investment should not be allowed to go to waste. "We will not accept new policies without public participation. The government should first stop the establishment of new universities," he said. Uasu also wants the government to suspend funding of students in private universities, saying such resources should be channelled to public universities.
Currently, there are 31 fully fledged public universities and more than 30 chartered private ones. Most of the universities, which were started due to political pressure, are located too close to each other and generally offer the same courses and programmes. It is the same political pressure that led to a policy stipulating that there should be at least one public university in every county.
Last month, Prof Magoha asked universities to consider retrenching some non-essential staff and merging academic programmes. He noted that the government wanted universities to specialise in academic programmes in which they are relatively strong rather than duplicate or offer similar ones.
In May last year, the Commission for University Education (CUE), in a report submitted to then Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, proposed the merger of several universities or closure of others as many had become unsustainable.
The commission also proposed that public universities be allowed to raise fees to reflect the market realities, arguing that the current rate is unrealistic. The CUE suggested creation of a regional university system by merging universities within the same geographical locations and converting most of the existing universities into constituent colleges or campuses.
The report, titled Policy Advisory on Rationalisation of Universities and Programmes in Kenya, noted that the creation of campuses from existing universities should be based on national development needs, existing infrastructure and resources and regional balance.
Some of the institutions that will be the first casualties of the new government policy are newly created constituent colleges, which have been struggling to attract students.
On Thursday, the VCs told Prof Magoha that the new policy was being forced down their throats as it was coming from the top rather than their universities, which ought to provide a proper road map for executing the plan.