Kenya’s university lecturers are reporting increasing cases of burnout due to their escalating workload and low pay, a new survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shows.
The findings of the study point to deteriorating work conditions in the country’s public and private universities which could further dent the country’s higher education credentials, long plagued by deteriorating quality and underfunding.
The study was conducted in June-July by the UNESCO International Insitute for Capacity Building in Africa (Unesco-IICBA) in collaboration with researchers in Kenya.
The academics who participated in the study decried poor pay as one of the biggest challenges they face. Due to the unhealthy financial position of public universities, cases of termination of employment and the reduction of salaries and wages have risen, leading to low motivation and poor well-being.
Also, student enrolment in universities has been growing at a faster rate than the number of lecturers, leaving academics with a heavier workload.
According to government statistics, the number of professors in public universities has risen by a paltry 11% over the past 10 years while student numbers soared by about 70% during the same period.
Kenya’s bid to build a critical mass of professors and produce at least 1,000 PhDs each year to drive the country’s economic ambitions has not borne fruit due to deficiencies in postgraduate training and research. It is estimated that the country graduated only 800 PhDs last year.
What about academics at private universities?
The report, published in September, indicates that lecturers reported encountering low remuneration and slow job progression more than other work-related issues.
According to the report, only about one-quarter (26.1%) of the lecturers involved in this study reported “the availability of free training on issues related to stress and work-related burnout” in their institutions.
In general, lecturers in private universities reported encountering the selected work-related issues slightly less often than their colleagues in public universities – and more so on issues related to low remuneration, slow job progression and being over-engaged with work.
Compared to their counterparts in public universities, lecturers in private universities consistently perceived burnout effects to be of lower impact on their professional outputs.
About two-thirds of the lecturers (66.5%) said they never or rarely sought professional support to help them untangle life challenges. In general, work-related burnout levels were consistently lower among lecturers in private universities than among their colleagues in public universities. However, burnout levels did not vary much across male and female lecturers.
The bigger picture
“[The] availability of at least one support mechanism at the university or application of at least one mechanism at a personal level seemed to be associated with lower burnout levels than otherwise”, according to the survey, whose data covered 161 university lecturers based in Kenya – 49.1% males and 49.7% females. A vast majority (83.2%) of these lecturers were teaching in public universities, while the rest (16.8%) were teaching in private universities.
The sorry state of the university academic is the latest in a string of challenges which universities in Kenya are facing, the biggest being funding. Public universities rely largely on government funding to meet their financial needs, but the subsidies have not matched the growth in student numbers, leaving them with deficits.
This has been made worse by depressed revenues from the parallel programme (privately funded students). Currently, the government is able to meet only about 61% of the total cost of a degree programme in public universities (while those in private institutions are funded at about 32%). The remaining 40% is shared between parents and the universities.
This situation has meant that universities are unable to focus on adequately addressing the needs of their employees. The UNESCO survey recommends that universities should provide lecturers with training on work-related burnout issues.
“This could include providing them with information on the importance of burnout on their professional outputs as university lecturers; the available support mechanisms in their universities; and personal-level mechanisms they can employ to avoid work-related burnout,” added the report, conducted in July 2022 to identify work-related burnout levels among university lecturers in Kenya.
Specifically, the survey aimed at answering the following questions, with a view of identifying how best university lecturers can be supported to deal with work-related burnout: How often do lecturers encounter selected work-related issues at their institutions? What level of importance do lecturers associate selected burnout effects on their professional output? And what mechanisms are available in universities in Kenya to support lecturers in dealing with work-related burnout?
The survey also sought to find out how often lecturers applied mechanisms at personal levels to avoid work-related burnout.