A university degree brings prestige in Kenya, where institutions of higher learning are still valued as a means of social advancement.  But the universities? reputations have been tarnished by years of strikes by faculty and staff. Today, Kenyan lecturers from the country?s six main public universities have been on strike since last October ? the third time in 12 years.  Students say the action is hurting them. From Nairobi, Ken Wekesa reports.

The history of Kenya's largest and oldest institution of higher learning, the University of Nairobi, goes back to 1956 when it was established as the Royal Technical College. Since then, both the number of institutions and enrollment have expanded rapidly, leading straining the resources of both students and the teaching staff.

Today, the university system includes 3,500 teaching staff, including professors, and about 65,000 students.

But state support for the universities has declined in recent years due to the country?s lagging economy.  In the meantime, lecturers complain about hardships. They can?t afford to pay rising prices for rents, food and other goods.

Currently, a teaching assistant earns about 192 dollars a month and a lecturer about 217 dollars. A full professor gets about 423 dollars.

The country?s University Academic Staff Union, or UASU, which represents lecturers, has been demanding a 500% pay increase.

The lecturers are demanding monthly salaries of about $3,400 dollars for a teaching assistant and more than 12,000 dollars for a full professor.

Dr. Owuor Olunga of the University of Nairobi and an official of UASU explained the reasons behind the continuing dissent ? which leaves tens of thousands of students without hope of finishing their degrees quickly.

He said, "Our grievances have been on the terms of service, principally in terms of the remuneration (with regard to) the qualifications of individuals who have certain degrees to be able to teach within the university.  And there has been a general feeling that the university sector has been neglected."

"The issues we have been raising are really according to the human resource requirements across the board. The effort that lecturers put into the university are not commensurate with the salaries we are paid, and that is why we demand the right remunerations that we believe will motivate the teaching staff. "

This is the third time lecturers have gone on strike in 12 years. In October 2006, more than 3,500 walked out of the six publicly funded universities, calling for big pay rises and better working conditions.  Three years ago, a work stoppage lasted for two months and one in 1994 lasted nearly a year.

Lecturers said those strikes ended in negotiations that yielded little to improve their welfare.

At the root of the crisis lies a disparity in public sector salaries. After independence, a university professor earned more than a judge, an MP or even a permanent secretary. But since then things have changed. Lecturers haven?t received a salary hike proportionate to the meteoric rises in the other public-sector positions.

Lecturers' salaries have also diverged from those of their immediate superiors. Five years ago, top professors earned about three-quarters of a vice-chancellor's salary. This year, they only earn about one-seventh.

"The raw deal," he said, "has meant that what we are given is not commensurate with our input and we are not being remunerated accordingly given the human resource capacity and resources we are generating from within the university.  [In teaching] there is a lot preparation where you have to a lot of reading, a lot of everthing else. "

"We are trying to demand reasonable pay packages that are rated according to the kind of work we do in the universities. When we table our demands we expect the government to respond by coming up with long-term solutions that will serve the interests of all the stakeholders."

In the meantime, Kenya?s education minister, George Saitoti, insists that the government is committed to improving working conditions in Kenyan universities but critics see few results. The government insists that the by the University Academic Staff Union for a 500 per cent salary increase defies market logic.

In the meantime, some lecturers are getting a taste of the market themselves?in an effort to make ends meet, some are doing consultancy work for business firms, non-governmental organizations and private universities. 

Also, some faculties -- like those of medicine, commerce and law ? are still teaching. The lecturers at these faculties -- which tend to attract wealthier students ? enjoy higher salaries than their university counterparts, and are reluctant to join the strikes. 

Also, strikes are often more severe at the country?s six other public universities, which have poorer students and require government to fund almost all their needs. On the other hand, the flagship of the public system, the University of Nairobi, receives up to 60 percent of its budget from wealthy students and so enjoys a greater degree of independence.

The strikes frustrate many students, who say they?ve paid tuition fees and are eager to complete their studies in good time.

One student said  ? If the lecturers are not paid well, the younger generation will not want to take up such jobs,?  while another said, ?Some of them are not serious about teaching, and so they don?t deserve that much.?   Others said the pay rise would affect the economy negatively,  perhaps increasing inflation.

Unlike earlier years, the university system today enjoys less public funding, while public officials question the mission and mandate of the institutions.

Many analysts believe that all of these problems are increasingly leading to a ?brain drain?  as Kenya?s academics leave for better paying work in the West.  It?s estimated that a lecturer in the United States earns triple the salary of his or her counterpart in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such lucrative packages entice poorly paid professionals to emigrate.