Birth of a New University


By Prof. Bethwell A. Ogot

In 1968, the East African Community set up a Working Party on Higher Education in East Africa given several factors: increasing needs of expansion of facilities for higher education within East Africa; the likelihood that at some time after the next triennial period this would lead to the natural growth of three or more separate universities instead of the three constituent colleges of the University of East Africa (Makerere, Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam); and the desire to maintain co-operation between the three constituent colleges in certain special matters of interest to the people of East Africa when the colleges developed into separate universities.

The Working Party was asked to recommend the appropriate pace of development at the three institutions, the arrangements whereby students from all over East Africa could still use the specialised facilities and how common entrance examination standards in the three states could be maintained. They submitted their report to the East African Authority on January 31, 1969.

They recommended that each college becomes a University in its own right and for the establishment of an Inter-University Committee for the East African Community to help maintain co-operation among Universities in East Africa. The three University Colleges were to become separate Universities on July 1\textsuperscript{st}, 1970. In Nairobi, the Academic Board at its meeting of February 5, 1969, elected a Legislative Committee with where I was elected as Chairman. The other members of the Committee were Dr A. T. Porter, Principal (Ex. Officio Member), Mrs M. Rogers, Dr A. M. Gebbie, Professor J. Mungai, Professor S. H. Ominde and Professor J. Coleman. Miss J. Tyrell (planning officer) and M. L. Shattock (Acting Registrar) were to act as secretaries. The main task of the Committee was to produce a “Draft Constitution for the future University of Kenya”. The Committee decided at its very first meeting to interpret its terms of reference broadly to include the writing of a comprehensive memorandum on “The Establishment of a University of Kenya”.

The University paper developed by April 1969, focused on the development of a pattern for higher education in Kenya in the post-1970s. It argued that a nation’s university or universities should be the supplier of its high-level man-power needs. The figures from the Ministry of Economic Planning had estimated that for the period 1966/67 to 1974/75 the University of East Africa would be able to supply university level man-power to Kenya only sufficient to meet the needs Africanisation, approximately 3,600 graduates, and not of the expanding economy, estimated to require about 6,500 graduates. That meant that the national university, which was to replace the University of East Africa, had to have adequate facilities and resources to double the output of graduates in 1970, and more than double its output by 1980.

The paper also discussed the need to maintain the University’s functional distinctiveness and integrity. It stated that a nation’s university must be at the apex of its national education system. Respect for this position, perceived as such by its citizens and by the outside world, was essential for its functional integrity and the preservation of the professional qualifications and respect for its educational product. Maintenance of this respect required recognition of the academic orientation of the teaching function and positive support for, and encouragement of independent scholarly research, both basic and applied. The report went on to emphasise that a university must, therefore, strive for both relevance and excellence, with university scholars standing at the frontiers of their respective disciplines.

Hence, a university in a developing country, the paper argued, is charged not only to produce high-level manpower for all of the professions and in all institutional spheres, but it should also provide that concentration, that critical mass, of specialised intelligence and expertise for the continuous and objective analysis and diagnosis of the manifold problems of the nation. The committee also stressed that it was critically important to maintain the distinctiveness and integrity of the university with a certain minimal autonomy. The report stated that for the proposed university to play its proper role, some degree of autonomy had to be granted to it.

On April 15, 1969, the Minister for Education Dr. J. G. Kiano announced that, in order to implement the recommendations of the Working Party for the establishment of national universities, he had decided to form a committee, of which he would be the Chairman, to examine the ways and means of establishing the University of Kenya. The full membership of the Committee was, Dr. J. G. Kiano, Minister for Education, Chairman; E. W. Mathu, Controller of State House, Vice-Chairman; Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General; B. M. Gecaga, Chairman, University College Council; J. N. Michuki, Permanent Secretary, Treasury; Philip Ndegwa, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Economic Planning and Development; Dr. Arthur T. Porter, Principal, University College, Nairobi; Dr. P. Nderitu, Dean, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University College, Nairobi; Professor B. A. Ogot, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University College, Nairobi; K. Mwendwa and Emma Njonjo (sister of Charles Njonjo), Chief Education Officers in the Ministry of Education; D. M. Mutiso, Chief Architect, Ministry of Works; and J. K. Njoroge, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education. To avoid complete marginalisation, the University College decided to formally submit to the Kiano Committee a thirty-page document on “The Founding of the University of Kenya”, which had been prepared by the Legislative Committee of the Academic Board, complete with a Draft Bill.

It immediately achieved the desired goal: members of the Committee had now to wade through a densely written document, with cogent arguments and packed with facts and figures. In addition to the College paper, the Committee was inundated with all kinds of written submissions from civil servants, politicians, businessmen and trade unions. After serious deliberations for about two months, the Committee produced its Report which was, in effect, a revised edition of the report of the Legislative Committee.

There was, however, one more question that had still to be settled, and that was the name of the new university. The Committee recommended “The University of Kenya” as the most appropriate name. The story goes that when Kenyatta asked what the abbreviation of such a name would be, somebody answered “UK” and Kenyatta objected on the ground that he had had enough of “UK”, throughout his life. The name of the university was then changed to the University of Nairobi, since “UN”, according to Kenyatta, was more universal than “UK”.

With the question of the draft Bill and related matters amicably solved between the University College and the Government, the University College turned its attention to the preparation of a new Development Plan to cover the period 1970-1973. This was the responsibility of the Development and Planning Committee of the Academic Board that, according to statutes, was chaired by the Principal or the Deputy-Principal. As the post of Deputy-principal remained vacant in 1968 to 1969, I was appointed by the Principal to shoulder this onerous responsibility. The plan had to be ready by April, 30, 1970, to allow the College Council to discuss and approve it before July, 1 1970 when the new university was to come into being.

The University Plan for the next triennium was to be based on the already demonstrated stability and the respect and recognition that the University College had won. Based on past experience of the College, various criteria were used when considering plans for consolidation and expansion in faculties and courses. These included the expense factor, both in terms of internal and external financial support, the availability of staff, the anticipated number of students and the probable saturation point in turnover rate for qualified persons in the fields concerned.

Decisions were taken to start a School of Journalism (1969-1970) and Faculties of Agriculture, Education and Law in the academic year 1970-1971. In the Faculty of Arts, the largest and the most diverse of the faculties at the time, two new departments were to be added during the 1967-1970 triennium, namely the Department of Sociology which had been started as a sub-department of Economics, and the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy which was launched in the academic year 1969-1970 with the aid of private donations. In all the remaining Faculties and Institutes, the Committee felt that the emphasis should be on consolidation and quality improvement.

By April 1970, the Development Plan 1970-1973, was ready for discussion and approval by the Academic Board and the University College Council, after which, the new university was ready for the take-off.

About the Author: Professor Bethwell A. Ogot is Emeritus Professor of History at Maseno University and held the UNESCO Chair for Higher Education in Africa. He has also taught at the University of Nairobi where he was the first Deputy Vice-Chancellor and also founded the Institute of Development Studies and the Institute of African Studies.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book, Bethwell .A. Ogot and Madara Ogot, History of Nairobi: 1899-2012: From a Railway Camp and Supply Depot to a World-Class African Metroplis Kisumu: Anyange Press, 2020.