Kenya's universities are expanding their facilities and seeking collaborations to tap into a rapidly growing Masters in Business Administration market. The MBA has increasing currency among the working class of East Africa's biggest economy.
Over the past few months Kenya's leading universities - public and private - have spent tens of thousands of US dollars to boost their capacity to enrol a soaring number of students seeking additional qualifications. And more universities, most recently KCA University and Inoorero University, have entered the MBA market.
Strathmore University is fundraising US$49 million this year to expand its business school. Strathmore Business School offers a four-year-old executive MBA programme, which is unique in being associated with several leading international business schools including Spain's globally ranked IESE Business School, which is in turn associated with Harvard.
Statistics show that Kenyan universities offering MBA programmes are churning out at least 2,500 graduates annually - more than double five years ago. At least half of the country's 23 public and private universities are now offering MBAs, compared with around eight universities five years ago.
Experts say increasing interest in MBAs among the working class is informed by desire on the part of workers to boost their careers and get better pay, in a market where salaries have not kept pace with inflation.
Statistics in the Kenyan Economic Survey 2010 show that household incomes grew at the rate of 6.4% in 2005, 7.5% in 2006 and 8.7% in 2007 before peaking at 8.4% in 2008. But high inflationary pressure that almost tripled from 11.9% in 2005 to 29.3% late last year has eroded purchasing power.
"As a growing economy Kenya needs highly qualified skills, and the labour market is becoming very competitive thus requiring the working class to upgrade their educational qualifications to remain relevant," said Mary Odhiambo, a management expert in Nairobi.
The traditional players in the MBA market - the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, the biggest higher education institutions in the country - attract the largest MBA classes. Upcoming, smaller public universities have also joined the fray, heightening competition in the field.
Institutions are also rushing to roll out differentiated degrees, with some such as Strathmore sending students abroad for periods for training. Others are snapping up CEOs and managing directors of leading companies to teach in MBA classes.
"The competition front is on differentiation of the MBA programmes because at the end of the day, they all sound the same," Odhiambo explained.
Earlier this year Inoorero University, a private institution recently given approval to become a fully-fledged university, launched an executive MBA programme in conjunction with Copenhagen Business School Centre for Continuing Education - only three months after KCA University enrolled its first class for a corporate MBA.
"The MBA market in Kenya is highly competitive, and so for us our focus is on producing an all-round graduate who, instead of specialising in specific disciplines, goes through all relevant units," said Dr Rosemary Maina, KCA's Deputy Vice-chancellor in charge of academic affairs, during the launch of the programme last December.
KCA is insisting that MBA students conduct research and publish the findings in well-known peer-reviewed journals, locally or internationally, Maina added.
Educationists say the growth in the MBA market is also being fuelled by thousands of young professionals in Kenya's labour market who want to move up the corporate ladder. Firms seeking human capital prefer MBA graduates for management positions. As a result, the growing number of MBA graduates are limiting job opportunities for people who hold only undergraduate degrees.
The Kenyan government is banking on education to drive its long-term growth targets under Vision 2030, the development blueprint that is aimed at making Kenya a middle-income country in the next two decades.
"Education is one of the key sectors that will deliver growth in Kenya," according to a just- published government progress report on Vision 2030. "However, it's faced with key concerns of access, retention, quality, relevance and equity as well as internal and external inefficiencies, which must be dealt with."
Peter Njeru, an MBA student at the University of Nairobi who works for a local bank, said he went back to school for two reasons. "First, everyone else in the office has an undergraduate degree so you have to get an extra qualification to be different career-wise. Two, MBA graduates in the office seem to be the ones getting the promotions."
With the demand for MBA degrees rising, universities are spending heavily on advertising their courses. No day goes by without a university advert. They are spending money to make money - public universities have been forced to supplement their income through high-fee courses such as MBAs, as their state subsidies have declined.
The growth in the MBA market comes at a time when Kenya's universities are grappling with an admissions crisis due to growing student numbers, which have not been matched by expansion of facilities. As a result, quality concerns dog the higher education sector.
Kenya's universities continue to perform poorly in global rankings. In the new rankings survey conducted by Spanish research firm Webometrics, Kenyan institutions have slipped out of the top 3,000 category since January 2009 when Strathmore was ranked at 2,404 worldwide.
In the rankings, which measure online visibility, research generation and scholarly activity, the University of Nairobi has replaced Strathmore at the top, ranked 26 in Africa. Strathmore dropped nine places to number 31 in Africa.
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