Surging demand for higher education ought to have given Kenya a good reason to clean up its universities. But as the number of private and public universities has grown over the past seven years, from 17 to 24 private and five to seven public institutions, so have concerns over the quality of learning.
The increase in the number of students seeking university education has not been matched with a similar expansion of facilities, watering down quality, a problem made worse by inadequate number of lecturers.
Employers are now raising concerns that while the country has been releasing a growing number of graduates onto the market - estimated at more than 10,000 annually - most lack the much-needed technical skills the economy needs.
"To say the least, there is a mismatch in the skills coming from universities and what the job market currently requires," said a human resources director at a Kenyan bank, who did not want to be named. "Most of the graduates are lacking in technical skills."
This pressure has forced the government to order a fresh round of inspections of private universities and colleges, to ensure that quality programmes are offered to students, an exercise that should kick-off before the end of the year.
Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar said last month that the mushrooming of higher education institutions had compromised standards and there was a need to clean up the system. "We must once and for all address the issues of quality in our universities" she said.
It is hoped that the inspection will also accurately establish staffing levels in universities, and whether a shortage of tutors continues to hurt learning.
Although the number of qualified lecturers has been growing, it lags far behind the student enrolment rate. This has meant that universities have recruited non-PhD holders, with many people holding only a masters degree taking up teaching jobs.
The lecturers lobby group, the University Academic Staff Union, says there are at least 9,000 lecturers in public and private universities in Kenya. The number stood at 7,000 five years ago, meaning that only 2,000 lecturers have been added to the system during this period.
Meanwhile student numbers have jumped 45%, from around 91,541 to 140,000, according to Kenya's Economic Survey 2011. As the country improved access to primary and secondary education, by making primary school free in 2003 and subsidising secondary schooling from 2008, the number of students seeking university education has soared.
The country has been gradually rolling out a series of reforms to revamp its higher education system under the National Strategy for University Education, to be implemented by 2015. It will see the creation of new campuses in rural areas and funding upped to enable more students to enrol in the coming years, easing the pressure that has been piling up on existing universities.
Administrators in public universities have been laying blame on the government for the growing challenges in the higher education sector, saying they have resulted from funding not matching the student growth. This has undermined university expansion plans, including the construction of new campuses.
Kenya has upped direct funding to public universities, from Sh21.8 billion (US$259 million) last year to Sh24.1 billion ($287 million) in the fiscal year beginning next month. Universities are projected to generate at least Sh14 billion from commercial activities, bringing to the total budget to Sh38 billion ($452 million).
The seven state universities continue to rely heavily on public financing, although over the years they have being forced to internally generate funds through commercial activities such as 'parallel' degree programmes.
Although there have been problems, the 'parallel' courses for full fee-paying students have brought in desperately-needed income and helped boost student numbers, as well as creating a blurring of boundaries between private and public in state universities.
Today Kenya has seven public universities, 13 recently-established constituent colleges attached to the state universities, and 24 private universities, according to the regulatory Commission for Higher Education.
Some experts had suggested that expansion of the 13 constituent colleges, established two years ago, could help deal with the admissions backlog in public universities. But the colleges seem not to be doing the trick. They are also grappling with inadequate facilities, making them ineffective in meeting their goal of improving access.
The new strategy will see universities, all of which are currently clustered in urban areas, spread their wings into more rural areas and offer locally appropriate courses such as dry-land farming, tourism and hospitality, marine sciences and environmental resources.
The thinking behind this, educationalists involved in the reforms said, is to improve access and also to give a much-needed human capital boost to the Kenyan economy's key drivers, agriculture and tourism.
The country has been scouting for options to help it admit at least 40,000 more students to universities to help end a backlog of learners which has built up over the last two decades. It had hoped that private institutions would help to expand places, but talks between them and the government shuddered to a halt earlier this year over issues of funding.
In a bid to further expand facilities and opportunities, Kenya has lined up two new specialised universities.
This year, the government has allocated Sh50 million ($595) to set up the distance National Open University of Kenya, which will enable more students to pursue degrees through online learning. It has made the same amount available to the Pan-African University, which is expected to go live next year. It is an African Union-driven, continent-wide postgraduate training and research institution comprising a network of university 'nodes' in five regions.
In recent months, the Commission for Higher Education (CHE) has been raising concerns over the problems facing the sector. It has said that many courses in which thousands of students are enrolled have not been accredited and can therefore not be recognised as offering proper qualification, putting thousands of careers on the line.
"We are investigating cases where some universities are starting programmes first then filing applications with the commission for accreditation, which is wrong," said CHE boss Professor Everett Standa recently.
The increased cases of universities offering unaccredited courses has irked professional bodies, which have refused to recognise some graduates' qualifications, stoking a crisis in the education sector.
The Engineers Registration Board has declined to recognise engineering degrees from three of Kenya's leading public universities, Egerton, Kenyatta and Masinde Muliro. A similar fate has befallen law graduates from some public and private universities after the Council of Legal Education rejected their qualifications.
Other organisations including the Institute of Surveyors of Kenya, Chartered Institute of Accountants, Pharmacy and Poisons Board, Medical Practitioners and Dentistry Board, Nursing Council and Veterinary Board, have also been pushing universities to improve degree quality.
These moves by professional bodies, along with the rapid increase in the number of institutions, added to the pressure on government to act on higher education quality.
Minister Kamar said in her announcement last month that the CHE had been directed to revisit and re-inspect the quality of programmes offered at all registered private universities, colleges and other tertiary institutions. Public universities were exempted, with the government apparently satisfied that existing processes were sufficient to ensure standards.
Kamar said some institutions had failed to delivery the quality of services promised when they were registered by the commission. "Those institutions that are already registered will undergo another inspection to ensure that the standards set during and after registration are maintained."
The commission, she added, would conduct both pre-registration and post-registration inspections to establish a system of checks and balances in the higher education sector.
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