Kenya's public universities, long plagued by an admissions crisis, will this year admit 4,000 extra students to clear a backlog that has for decades forced students to wait for up to two years after high school to enter public higher education.
Universities, under their body the Joint Admissions Board (JAB), recently announced hat they would cap new enrolments at 24,300, up from a last year's ceiling of 20,000.
To achieve this JAB, a team of public university vice-chancellors charged with selecting students for Kenya's seven public universities, slashed the minimum grade in last year's Form Four exam to a grade B of 63 points from 65 points the previous year. This opened an avenue for thousands of students who would otherwise have missed admission.
But despite the hike in enrolment, the biting problem of strained access to university persists. Of 82,000 students who scored the minimum C+ grade required to be admitted to universities, more than half - 57,000 - will miss out on places in 'regular' programmes in state universities.
The decision to admit extra students is seen by educationists as the beginning of a plan to rid universities of an admissions backlog of at least 40,000 students, and enable students to enter higher education straight from school.
Earlier this year it appeared that universities might be forced to admit a double intake of students to clear the backlog. But educationalists warned that absorbing a huge number of students would backfire if not accompanied by a commensurate rise in funding to enable institutions to expand educational and boarding infrastructure and hire extra tutors.
A pool of would-be students has grown since 1982, when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup. The backlog worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest against the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat programme in 1991.
By the time 'regular' (government-sponsored) students enter university, fellow students enrolled on 'parallel' (fee charging) courses are way ahead in their degrees - an issue seen as disadvantaging 'regular' students.
In June the treasury set the stage for increased admissions when it raised the allocation to public universities for the current fiscal year by an extra US$293. This saw subsidies to state universities nearly double, to $640 million.
The upped spending, in addition to potentially easing the admissions backlog and improving a dwindling quality of learning, was also to be used to fund 13 newly created constituent colleges run by public universities.
While this is the biggest rise in subsidies to universities in Kenyan history, and was much higher than expected, fears still abound that funding is way below what is required to handle soaring admissions. Out of the total spending on universities, $512 million will go to recurrent expenses such as salaries while only $100 million will be used to finance development projects in public universities.
"To clear the backlog and increase access to university education, however, requires more than just finances," said Martin Kiptoo, a former lecturer who is now an education consultant in Nairobi "There is need for university vice-chancellors to quickly agree on how best this can be done to avoid straining the already stretched infrastructure in institutions."
For years, Kenya's government has been unable to bankroll universities to required levels because it has been weighed down by a budget deficit that hit US$2 billion this year, 22% of the country's annual budget. Below-target government revenues in a challenging economic environment have only made matters worse.
Funding has trailed enrolment growth in public universities, compromising quality as infrastructure remained inadequate and the number of lecturers stagnated.
"Expansion of facilities is crucial if Kenya is to effectively handle the demand for university education," argued Professor Olive Mugenda, chair of the JAB and Vice-chancellor of Kenyatta University, the country's second biggest university.
Over the past five years, enrolments have been rising by at least 40% annually while subsidies have increased by only 4% to 5 %. According to the government's Economic Survey 2010, released last month, the number of students in public universities was 143,000 in 2009 - up from 101,000 the previous year.
Public universities rely heavily on state funding. As a result, failure to increase funding in line with enrolments undermined their expansion plans, including construction of new campuses, at a time when classes were overflowing.
Constrained enrolment to universities has for years slowed down the transition of qualified students from secondary schools to higher education. More than 200,000 school leavers miss places in public universities annually because institutions lack the space. Administrators have long decried inadequate funding, saying they need more money to create more facilities.
The enhanced enrolment of students is seen by experts as a strategy to boost Kenya's human capital, which is essential to drive the country's long-term economic development plan. Vision 2030 aims to push East Africa's biggest economy to industrialisation in the next two decades. The growth strategy is anchored on a strong, highly qualified human capital base.
"Kenya's human resources development priorities over the medium term include enhancing access, equity, quality and relevance of education at all levels, and strengthening linkages between industry and research institutions to promote demand and drive research and training," said Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta recently.
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