Governments and educators in Kenya struggling to keep pace with demand for higher education

The number of students in Kenya’s universities is soaring, up 28% in 2014 compared to 2013. But, contrary to expectations, the government has cut funding by 6% for the upcoming fiscal year, adjusting its higher education spending to US$588 million compared to the US$627.2 million allotted in 2014/15.

The funding cuts will make it difficult for universities to cater to the growing numbers of students taking courses, and they will necessitate strategies to secure funds from alternative sources.

Universities will also be challenged by the directive from Kenya’s Commission for University Education (CUE) to stop offering diploma and certificate courses by July 2015. These courses have become more common in Kenyan universities both because of increasing student numbers and because they are good sources of revenue, and they are often the result of collaboration between universities and more commercially oriented colleges. The CUE order, which requires that such courses be offered only by colleges and technical institutes in the future, will effectively eliminate this source of revenue for universities.

In other words, the country’s universities are faced with both decreased government subsidies and the removal of an important alternate source of funding.

Integral to the CUE decision to require universities to cease offering diplomas and certificates is an attempt to increase the quality of education offered in Kenya’s universities. The argument has been that offering these courses is “outside of the core function” of universities, and that students interested in them would be better suited to technical colleges. By requiring such students to attend technical institutes, the hope is for more places to be opened up for students to pursue university degrees.

Also underlying the CUE decision is a sense that universities have become too focused on revenue generation – to the detriment of quality. President Uhuru Kenyatta met with chancellors from public universities this May and said:

“Higher education is growing at an incredible pace. This is not only because of demand but because of the pace of development. We must make sure we maintain a healthy balance between quality and quantity.”

However, at the same time, he reportedly agreed with the attending chancellors that there was a “need to allocate more resources to public universities to boost research and innovation.” The recently announced funding cuts, needless to say, are at odds with this goal.

In brighter news, despite the cuts to universities’ core funding, students will have better access to financial aid in 2015/16. The Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) will receive US$83 million under the new budget, up from the current US$63 million and representing a 33% increase.

Problems facing the Kenyan higher education system

In a paper called Higher education as an instrument of economic growth in Kenya, Josiah Nyangau summarises the challenges currently facing the country’s higher education system:

  • “Massification;
  • Overcrowding;
  • Ever-growing demand;
  • Erosion of the non-university sub-sector due to acquisitions and takeovers by public universities in search of space;
  • Insufficient/declining public funding;
  • Curricula that are not responsive to modern-day needs of the labour market;
  • Declining quality;
  • Lack of basic laboratory supplies and equipment;
  • Crumbling infrastructure;
  • Poorly equipped/stocked libraries;
  • Poor governance;
  • Rigid management structures.”

Mr Nyangau considers massification – which he defines as “the transformation of previously elite systems of higher education to mass systems of higher education as participation in postsecondary education expands dramatically” – to be the most fundamental issue facing Kenya’s higher education system.

The latest Kenyan government data shows that public and private universities in the country combined to enrol 443,783 students in 2014. This compares to 2013’s 361,379 students and is more than double the enrolment from 2012.

Against that dramatic growth, Mr Nyangau adds, “Although there have been efforts over the years to expand the public higher education system, rapid and sustained double-digit growth in demand has consistently outpaced supply.”

There are ten more universities in Kenya than there were four years ago (68 compared to 58), including public and private institutions. Though the number of public universities tripled in 2013 (from seven to 22) after the government upgraded 15 university colleges into fully-fledged universities to meet rising demand, the private sector is also robust since even that increase cannot accommodate enough students.

The cuts to public universities, along with the direction to ban them from offering diploma and certificate programmes, may spur the further expansion of private institutions to accommodate demand.

Hopes to extend higher education to have-not counties

The tragic attacks on Kenyan students earlier this year at Garissa University by Al-Shabaab militants focused the world’s attention on Kenya, and to the threats Kenyan students face in some regions if they pursue “Western-style” education. They also highlighted the huge divides in the country between certain regions – with the northeast region having (in some cases) more trade and ethnic ties to Somalia, as well as sub-standard government services, including education.

The UN Development Index considers Kenya to be the second most “unequal” country in East Africa, after Rwanda. And increasingly, there are fears that this inequality will stoke growing numbers of Kenya’s dissatisfied and often unemployed youth to radicalisation, and even violence. Yusuf Hassan, the Member of Parliament for Nairobi’s Kamukunji Constituency, an electoral voting area in the capital region, has said:

“The unemployment crisis is a ticking bomb. Over 60% of the population is under 25. You cannot ignore that. A huge and significant population is restless. And the gap between the rich and poor is getting wider.”

There are some counties in Kenya that do not have a university (Garissa University was the only university college in the north, and it was closed after the April attack).

To try to extend education more deeply through the country, there is a proposal being debated in the Kenyan Senate, Universities Bill 2014, which calls for 20 new universities to be created so that each county will have a centre of research and higher learning.

As much as this is part of a wider plan initiated in 2013 to “devolve” government so that individual counties in Kenya become self-sustaining, the passing of the bill may be imperiled by the pending budget cuts. In addition, the government is faced with the need to increase educational access to its marginalised northern population, alongside the fact that many students and teachers in the region are terrified of further attacks.

Expanding and improving the system under such circumstances is, to say the least, a tremendous challenge that would be daunting for any government. And yet the burgeoning demand for higher education in Kenya will no doubt mean that improving the country’s higher education system will remain a focus for national and state governments for years to come.



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