Could Kenya become a growth market for outbound mobility?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Kenya is a key emerging market in Africa
  • The number of Kenyan students abroad has been essentially flat over the past ten years, due in part to the rapid expansion of the domestic higher education system
  • A strong economic outlook and booming youth population are expected to contribute to outbound mobility growth in the decade ahead

On paper, Kenya should be a great market for international student recruiters. Its economy is one of the fastest-growing in Sub-Saharan Africa, and its population is young and growing quickly.

After setbacks in the global economic crisis in 2008/09, the Kenyan economy rebounded to growth in the early part of this decade and expanded by 5.8% in 2016 alone. This makes it one of the best performers on the African continent, and similar annual growth – between roughly 5.5% and 6.0% per year – is expected through 2019.

Kenya is East Africa’s industrial hub. The economy still relies heavily on agriculture and resource industries – notably forestry, fishing, and mining – but it has real strengths as well in manufacturing, energy, tourism, financial services, and communications technology.

Kenya is also the seventh-largest country in Africa today. Driven by way-above-global-average birth rates, the country’s population, currently around 49 million people, is projected to exceed 80 million by 2050.

But its population also skews very young, with more than half of all citizens under the age of 25 and the country is expected to have one of the world’s fastest-growing populations of 18-to-22-year-olds through 2024. The British Council projects that Kenya will have a population of 5.7 million college-aged students by 2024, up from 4.2 million in 2011 – a level of growth exceeded only by Nigeria, India, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.

A check on growth

Even with these strong fundamentals in place, total outbound mobility, as measured by UNESCO, has been essentially flat over the past ten years. There were about 13,700 Kenyan students in tertiary studies abroad in 2007, and, with some minor ups and downs in the intervening years, UNESCO counted about the same number of outbound students for 2016.

The US has been the historical favourite destination, and hosts one in four Kenyan students abroad today. The UK, Australia, and South Africa account for another 35% combined. The destinations for Kenyan students become more diffused after that, with host countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe largely rounding out the top ten.

There is some indication, however, that UNESCO data significantly undercounts the total outbound from Kenya. Media reports have it that tens of thousands more Kenyan students are enrolled in nearby countries, notably Tanzania and Uganda, the latter which has long been seen as an education hub in the area.

Aside from this regional mobility aspect, the other major factor that appears to be a curb on outbound growth from Kenya is the rapid expansion of higher education within the country.

There are now 68 higher education institutions in Kenya, up from 58 since 2011 alone. Twenty-two are public and the rest – which are responsible for the greatest expansion in Kenya’s higher education capacity – are private.

The country needs this additional capacity as the massification of higher education in Kenya is now in full effect. Total enrolment has grown very quickly from 2012 on, doubling between 2012 and 2014 alone. From 2013’s 361,379 students, higher education enrolment grew to 443,783 in 2014 and then, more modestly, to reach 470,152 students in 2015.

The quality question

Few domestic systems could expand that quickly without some growing pains, and Kenya’s is no exception. Earlier this year, a sweeping audit by the Kenyan government found widespread issues with respect to student admissions, progression, and the awarding of degrees and certificates.

The resulting report triggered the suspension of some programmes, tighter oversight of others, and systemic reforms intended to boost the integrity and quality of Kenyan higher education.

The question will now be whether or not Kenyan higher education can achieve more uniform quality improvements while keeping pace with the tremendous demand for degree studies within the country. Needless to say, there is an imperative to do so, especially given the opportunity of the demographic dividend that the country’s youthful population now offers. Kenya needs its growing labour force to be well educated and skilled in order to meet its ambitious economic and social goals.

This would be a daunting proposition for any education system, but Kenyan institutions are struggling with real financial challenges as well, triggered in part by declining public funding to the sector. The auditor-general found earlier this year that as many as 11 Kenyan universities are essentially insolvent, and other reports suggest that 12 of the 33 public universities in the country could operate at a deficit this year.

And this opens up a broader question. Demand for higher education in Kenya is high and will only increase for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the population of college-aged students will also increase, as will the strength of the Kenyan economy. It seems possible, even likely, that this will lead to a notable increase in outbound numbers in the decade ahead, and that that is sure to keep Kenya on any recruiter’s list of markets to watch in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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