KENYA: Polytechnics being upgraded

With an ever-increasing number of pupils graduating from high school in Kenya, competition for places in public higher education institutions is getting tougher by the year. One of the government's responses has been to upgrade some colleges, especially polytechnics, into universities in an effort to expand the number of higher education places.

For the past five years the number of pupils graduating from Kenyan high schools annually has been 250,000, and this number is expected to continue growing thanks to the provision of free primary and subsidised secondary schooling.

But by 2004 public universities could only accommodate around 10,000 students through the Joint Admissions Board. This excluded thousands of qualified youngsters from financially disadvantaged families from accessing university education.

Kenya's cash-strapped government expanded the number of university places by introducing 'parallel' degree programmes, full-fee courses run separately from subsidised programmes - though the same syllabus is followed - that bring private money into higher education. While this increased the number of students in the system, there are serious concerns over academic standards being sacrificed and mediocre students being able to pay their way on to courses.

The Joint Admissions Board decides which students qualify for particular subsidised courses, and so many students end up being offered places on programmes they would not otherwise choose. As a result many students opt to enrol in polytechnics, technical institutions or private universities where they can pursue the career of their choice.

The upgrading of some polytechnics to offer degree courses has been good news for polytechnic students wanting to translate their diploma into a degree through a further two years of bachelor-level study in the same field, and for the expansion of higher education.

One example is the recently upgraded Kenya Polytechnic University College. A new principal took charged last November and a senate is being formed in order to attain the full status of a university college - although delays in this upgrading process caused an uproar among engineering students whose courses were delayed. Plans are underway to reorganise various departments into schools headed by deans.

Upgrading of the polytechnic has also encouraged new courses, such as the former part-time diploma in journalism and public relations now being offered full-time to a larger number of students, and the introduction this September of a degree in journalism.

The new status has invigorated efforts to improve information and communication technology provision. Previously the institution had only four computer laboratories, now there are moves afoot to ensure that each department has modern computers and software with internet access for students to use for learning and research.

Located in Nairobi's central business district, Kenya Polytechnic University College has little room for expansion. But available space within the institutions is being put to optimal use to ensure there is sufficient space to accommodate all students and a new wooden student centre is almost completed.

These positive developments will help to ensure the polytechnic university is able to meet national and international standards. Already regarded as one of the best institutions in Kenya at equipping students with skills in civil and electrical engineering, initiatives in other areas are a positive sign that performance will improve in other disciplines.