Kenya is planning to set up at least 20 new public universities, as it seeks to devolve education to counties that currently have no institution of higher learning.
The proposal is contained in a bill currently being debated in the senate, and is part of a wider strategy that is meant to make Kenya’s 47 counties self-sustaining under a devolved system of government that kicked off last year.
Educationists and senators say that areas without higher education institutions generally have poorer education levels and credentials than those with universities.
The Universities Bill 2014, first tabled before the senate last month, wants to guarantee a public university in each of the counties as a centre of research for the region. Institutions are expected to focus on research that addresses the needs of the national and county governments, and is relevant to the area.
That means a county like Turkana, for example, where Kenya recently found oil reserves, will show bias in research around minerals, oil and gas exploration, while Kisumu County will be expected to concentrate on water-related research, as it is based on the shores of Lake Victoria.
This thinking echoes a project being driven by the African Union to set up the Pan-African University or PAU, comprising five satellite research and postgraduate training institutes based in existing universities across Africa’s five regions.
The PAU idea came out of the need to strengthen higher education in Africa, especially postgraduate training and research, and to capitalise on the performances of strong universities so that they can contribute more to development in priority areas and build the continent’s much-needed high-level skills.
Expanding higher education
The Kenyan bill seeks to further expand available spaces for learning.
Early last year, the country upgraded 15 colleges to fully-fledged universities in a bid to raise capacity for at least 10,000 extra students annually.
However the planned increase in the number of universities will come with a heavier financial burden for the state, which has been struggling to adequately fund existing public institutions.
Next year, the first group of beneficiaries of free primary education will enter university. Educationists have argued that absorbing a much larger number of students will backfire if not accompanied by a rise in funding that enables institutions to expand infrastructure and hire extra lecturers.
Recently, public universities have had to resort to commercial activities to fund their needs. Government statistics show state subsidies to public universities grew by 6% last year to reach US$624 million, up from US$588 million in 2012.
During the period, enrolments to state universities rose by 41%, from 195,428 to 276,349. In spite of the rapid increase in enrolments, access to university education has remained a challenge, with 70% of the students who qualify not being admitted.
However, while the government wants to devolve education to all corners of the country, county governments will not have authority to regulate the institutions, since that remains the preserve of national government through the Commission for University Education, or CUE.
The planned setting up of new institutions is likely to deepen concerns over the quality of learning in higher education.
Currently, CUE is facing criticism over the quality of graduates, with some educationists saying the mushrooming of institutions and growing student numbers – forecast to hit 350,000 by the end of this year – is overwhelming the body.
Once the bill becomes law, priority will be assigned to counties that have no university, public or private. Currently, Kenya has 66 accredited public and private universities, 22 of which are public, 17 private and nine university colleges.
“Kenya’s education sector will require substantial investments to produce the required human resources for priority growth sectors,” said CUE in its latest strategic plan. “Although enrolment in public universities has increased over time, the high cost continues to limit access for a large number of qualified students.”
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