The blame game between many part-time lecturers and some universities over delayed payments running into years needs urgent resolution.
Universities rely significantly on part-time lecturers. The demand is expected to rise steeply due to the current austerity measures in the higher education sector.
Though critical to effective curriculum delivery, part-time lecturers remain largely unappreciated and underpaid.
The university job hierarchy is highly regimented, like a military formation. The highest academic rank is a full professor and the lowest, a part-time lecturer.
Climbing the ladder is slow and daunting, especially for a part-timer. Part-time lecturers are academic members of staff who teach on temporary arrangement.
In Europe, America and Asia, the position is institutionalised and fairly remunerated. They are known as adjunct faculty with clearly defined rights and obligations.
The majority of part-time lecturers are young, dynamic and flexible. They are readily available and cost less to hire.
Aware that universities cannot operate effectively without adjunct staff, the Commission for Universities Education (CUE), through The Universities Standards and Guidelines, 2014, authorised universities to have 2:1 ratio of full-time to part-time academic staff per programme.
Universities benefit from cheap labour offered by part-time staff, but unfortunately find it safer to delay or ignore paying them.
Part-time lecturers are supposed to be paid at the end of the semester on condition that they teach, examine and grade students.
Generally, they are paid when “money becomes available”. This may take months, years or forever.
Non-payment of part-timers is affecting production of PhDs the country badly needs.
A good number of part-time lecturers are budding scholars at various stages of their PhD programmes in local universities.
Their hope is to graduate and secure permanent employment to replace retiring professors. Without payment for work done, they can hardly feed their families, pay fees for their programmes or purchase the books required to complete their theses.
Corruption and nepotism in some universities have consigned part-time lecturers to unemployment, poverty and hopelessness.
They lack pedigree and connections. Oftentimes they watch painfully as relatives and friends of top management are wheel-barrowed into job positions they have been holding as temporary staff for years.
Part-time staff courageously project an intellectual image in the face of severe deprivation.
They have no monthly salary, no contract of service, no house allowance, no NSSF cover, no NHIF cover, no gratuity, no medical cover, no transport allowance, no book allowance, no leave, no support to attend conferences, and no fees waiver on their PhD programmes.
Yet, they teach, examine and grade students, just like their counterparts.
The disparity is too wide to be ignored. This is the most insecure employment arrangement one can imagine.
Sadly enough, there are Kenyans staring at retirement still part-timing.
Exploitation of adjunct staff is slowly affecting academic standards in universities. There are reported cases of part-time lecturers accepting ‘gifts’ from students in form of free meals, matatu fare, drinks and at times soft loans.
Some desperate adjunct staff conspire to confiscate students’ scripts and marks to force defaulting universities to settle their arrears.
Consequently, innocent students fail to graduate because of missing marks. Sometimes scripts are lost, forcing students to retake the exams.
To survive, a number of part-time lecturers are resorting to side-hustles. I am aware of two part-time lecturers who have opened a car wash. They say cleaning cars, unlike teaching for universities, puts food on the table.
Non-payment of part-time lecturers has potential to destroy families: “My wife suffered from severe depression and was in Mathari hospital from January to April 2017.
She is still under medication. She brings up the issue of financial strain and I simply explain to her that I may not be in a position to influence any university to pay me for the work I have done,” one affected part-time lecturer who is a PhD candidate emailed me.
“Sometimes we go for several months without paying rent and school fees for our children. Occasionally, the children are sent home for lack of fees. Many a time they must go to school in torn clothes and survive on a packet of rice, to mention a few,” he added.
Do part-time lecturers have rights enforceable in courts of law? The answer is in the affirmative.
A number of universities deliberately fail to issue part-time lecturers with appointment letters hoping that should they go to court, the university can disown them. This is delusionary. The law protects part-time staff adequately.
Article 41 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 protects every person’s right to fair labour practices that include fair remuneration and reasonable working conditions.
‘Person’ here includes a part-time lecturer. The Employment Act Cap 226 further entitles part-time lecturers to ‘contracts of service’.
Any person who is assigned work that takes three months and above is entitled to a ‘contract of service’. Such a contract can be oral, written or implied.
In case of dispute as to the existence or non-existence of a contract, the burden shifts to the employer and not staff. University semesters take 15 weeks; more than three months.
Understandably, part-time lecturers are reluctant to litigate delayed payments in courts because of expenses, time and stigma.
Universities are keen to avoid staff with a reputation of dragging employers to court.
That said, not all part-time lecturers are innocent victims of unresponsive university administration. Some adjunct staff are villains.
Some are known to abandon semesters midway, demand payments using threats, impervious to university regulations, routinely blackmail administration in social media, withhold marks without cause, perennially miss classes, move from one university to another with the same old notes, recycle predictable examination questions, award high marks to be popular with students and, run to courts over minor misunderstandings hoping to cash in on imagined hefty damages.
The Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu) is aware and empathises with the affected staff.
According to Dr Constantine Wesonga, the secretary-general of Uasu, assisting freelance part-timers is challenging because they are not registered union members, operate solo and take up teaching assignments without contracts against professional advice.
I believe Uasu can do more to assist these future union members.
Not all universities are guilty of exploiting adjunct staff. There are a few private and public universities that pay adjunct staff well and predictably. This should be emulated by all.
Indebted universities should make urgent arrangements to settle arrears owed to part-time staff.
Going forward, it is important that universities only employ part-time staff they genuinely need and can pay adequately and promptly.
Rates for part-timers should be revised and standardised nationally to avoid exploitation. Above all, universities must be guided by Chapter Six of the Constitution in recruitment so that qualified adjunct staff are not skipped based on their poor background or lack of pedigree.