Converging factors fuel growth in Kenya’s higher education system

This year has marked a time of significant change for the higher education system in Kenya. Most notably, the Universities Act 2012 was signed into law in January, with the aim of streamlining and improving the management of university affairs. Since then, the country’s higher education regulator – the Commission for University Education (CUE) – has published draft regulations and standards to operationalise the new Act.

Against this backdrop of legislative change, the Kenyan higher education system is expected to keep expanding at a rapid pace, thanks to a number of converging factors, including:

  • increased capacity in public institutions;
  • a growing private sector;
  • more government investment in research; and
  • diversified student loan programmes.

In today’s post we take a closer look at these and other recent developments in Kenya’s education sector, including current challenges and what lies ahead for this important East African education market.

More places means more students in public universities

The number of first-year students admitted to Kenya’s public universities this year rose by 26% over last year, due to a lowering of the entry requirements, as announced by the Joint Admissions Board (JAB), which manages undergraduate admissions to Kenya’s public universities.

As a result, 53,010 candidates who achieved the minimum score or above on the 2012 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination (KCSE) were accorded a spot in one of the country’s 22 public universities for the 2013/14 academic year. Just this year the number of universities in Kenya tripled after the government upgraded 15 university colleges into fully-fledged universities as part of a bid to enroll 10,000 more students annually.

Nevertheless, approximately 70,000 students still had to look elsewhere to meet their higher education needs: it is estimated that 30,000 enrolled in self-sponsored courses at Kenya’s public universities, another 30,000 went abroad for their university education, and 10,000 turned to one of Kenya’s private universities.

A growing private sector

The inability of the public sector to meet the demand for a university education, and the “widespread belief that a degree is required to get a good job, or to advance in a job” are both contributing to a thriving private education sector in Kenya, says professor Freida Brown, vice-chancellor of United States International University in Nairobi (USIU). The private sector has seen accelerated growth over the past 13 years and now boasts 20% of all students – 60,000 of the 300,000 students currently enrolled in Kenya’s private and public universities.

One positive outcome of expansion in both the private and public sector is that record numbers of female students are enrolling in Kenyan universities: 105,115 in 2012, as compared to 80,560 the previous year.

At an increase of over 30%, this major shift could redefine gender dynamics in employment and education.

Concerns about STEM-related programming and funding

However, one issue related to the expansion of private institutions in particular is that most don’t yet offer science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM-related) courses. They are, instead, focused on arts, humanities, and business programmes, which are less expensive to deliver and more popular among students.

A recent item from University World News notes that, with some exceptions (such as the United States International University’s plan to invest over US $50 million in a faculty of pharmacy), the burden of training scientists and engineers is falling to often poorly funded STEM faculties in a few state institutions.

“While private universities are equipping graduates with critical skills that are contributing to development, experts are concerned that the responsibility for training the far greater number of scientists and engineers needed to drive economic transformation is currently being shouldered by STEM faculties in too few state universities.”

The lack of overall investment in STEM programmes is a cause for concern, given that this programming is regarded as an important driver of innovation and economic growth.

As Peggy Oti-Boateng, coordinator of UNESCO’s Nairobi-based African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, told University World News:

“Sustainable development in Africa will be attained much faster when we build and improve capacity in the sciences.”

There are, however, some promising signs on the horizon:

  • The Kenyan Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has announced it will increase research funding from US $14 million to US $27 million by 2015;
  • Chuka University plans to build a US $35.3 million science and technology park;
  • The University of Nairobi – which has the highest enrolment of students in Kenya – increased its research budget over the past ten years from US $3.6 million to US $36 million, and plans to have a research budget of US $120 million by 2015.

In the private sector, IBM has launched a research lab in Nairobi that aims to conduct applied and exploratory research into Africa’s challenges, and deliver commercially viable innovations.

Other emerging challenges

Concern about the availability of STEM-related programming isn’t the only issue facing Kenya’s higher education sector. Similar to other rapidly developing education systems, there are questions about the quality of higher education in the country.

Essay writing “mills” and other assignment completion businesses are sprouting up in tandem with the increasing numbers of university students. The Commission for University Education (CUE) has warned that undetected cheating is damaging the quality of graduates, a fear echoed by others as well.

Furthermore, the surge in admissions is putting pressure on the state’s financier for higher education loans – the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) – prompting it to restructure and diversify in order to enhance the availability of funding to underprivileged Kenyans seeking access to higher education.

To increase its funding, the HELB is reaching out to the private sector – having recently signed a deal with US-based firm Latimer Education Inc. – as well as high-net individuals, and encouraging beneficiaries who overpaid their loans to donate the surplus. It is also working to achieve efficiencies in loan recovery from the approximately 70,000 former beneficiaries who have failed to repay their outstanding loans.

What lies ahead?

The impact of Kenya’s new Universities Act will be felt in the months ahead, likely pushing up the cost of education and potentially raising the quality of learning.

Universities are expected to release new fee guidelines that will be based on a system of Differentiated Unit Cost for each programme, where students in the arts and humanities, for example, will pay less than their counterparts studying medicine. Lecturer pay will also be revised in accordance with the courses they teach.

Additionally, campuses and satellite centres will need to meet minimum infrastructure standards; foreign universities will need to submit proof of accreditation from their home countries before operating in Kenya; and public universities will be subject to quality assurance overseen by the CUE – a form of oversight that was prevented under previous legislation.

Some have also suggested that universities may be turning more to commercial activities to supplement their government subsidies, given that funding the increased demand for higher education remains one of the biggest concerns in Kenya. Professor David Some, CEO of the CUE, noted that:

“Universities the world over are involved in income-generating activities that are complementary to their core functions, such as the commercialisation of research and development… [In Kenya,] government subsidies are no longer enough and universities are going into commercial activities.”

In addition to rolling out its new Act, the Kenyan government has also announced several major initiatives to further boost student enrolment, teaching, and research in higher education in the years ahead, including plans to:

  • Set up an open university by December 2014, enabling students to pursue degrees through online learning, which is currently only offered by private universities on a small scale. This is expected to ease a backlog of 40,000 potential students.
  • Double the number of universities of technology from four to eight, a move that will help grow admissions, and hone Kenya’s edge in ICT competitiveness and innovation.
  • Train 1,000 PhDs a year within five years via a government-backed scholarship programme, thereby increasing the pool of available, qualified lecturers in Kenya.
  • Invest more money into the national research fund, which currently stands at US $180 million, or 0.4% of gross domestic product, but is expected to rise to US $900 million, or 2% of GDP, next year.

However, expansion plans such as these may be delayed by a new government policy to temporarily freeze employment and appointments in state bodies. In particular, delays in appointing commissioners to the CUE may stall the roll out of education reforms.



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