KENYA: Funding crunch deepens admissions crisis

The biting admissions crisis in Kenyan universities could soon worsen, should a proposal to barely increase state funding for public universities from July be accepted. The Ministry of Finance said in estimates for the 2010-11 financial year it could only raise university subsidies by 4% yet student enrolment has leapt by 40%.

Public universities will receive US$320 million in the financial year that begins in July, up from $306 million in the current fiscal year.

The minuscule rise is a 10th of a recent jump in student admissions. According to the government's Economic Survey 2010 released last month, the number of students enrolled in public universities was 143,000 last year - up from 101,000 the previous year.

The 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 or 22% of the country's annual national budget. Below target government revenues in a challenging economic environment have only made matters worse.

Kenya's public universities rely heavily on state funding. The failure to keep up with enrolment growth will undermine their expansion plans, including the construction of campuses, at a time when classes are overflowing and more people are enrolling.

More than 200,000 secondary school leavers miss places in public universities annually because they are short of space. University administrators have long decried inadequate funding, saying they need more money to create more facilities.

"There is an urgent need for universities to put up additional facilities in new colleges as well as expand the current infrastructure to cope with the surge in demand for education," said Professor Olive Mugenda, Vice-chancellor of Kenyatta University, Kenya's second biggest university by student numbers and facilities.

"The demand is just too high and so far we haven't expanded our facilities in tandem with this demand."

Maintaining existing allocations to public universities, experts said, could push institutions further into expensive commercial activities to cover shortfalls. It could also trigger a wave of fee increases as institutions sought extra money to support larger populations.

This could make universities in Kenya the most expensive in the region and spark a flight of capital as parents sought more affordable options in places such as South Africa and Uganda.

"Failure to increase government subsidies means universities will go commercial which, if uncontrolled, could hurt quality and raise the cost of learning as institutions might focus on making profits at the expense of their core business," said Edward Njau, an educationist in Nairobi. "People are already paying too much for university education."

It costs close to $10,000 to complete a postgraduate programme in Kenya under the parallel system. The same programme in South Africa's top five universities costs less than US$2,700.

The proposed funding levels contained in the Ministry of Finance's medium term expenditure framework for 2010 to 2013, for the research, innovation and technology sector, reveal that the University of Nairobi will get the biggest share, $92 million, followed by Kenyatta University which will receive $60 million.

Moi University has been allocated $57 million and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology will receive $35 million. The three other universities - Egerton, Maseno and Masinde Muliro - will get $42 million, $21million and $13 million respectively.

Vice-chancellors said the money was less than half what they needed to finance their operations. "To be honest, for my university the allocation is normally 38% of what the university needs," said Professor George Magoha, Vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Kenya's biggest university.

The financing deficit for state universities is not new. Early this year, a government-sponsored team of experts from the World Bank decried the worsening financial crisis in Kenya's public universities.

The expert team blamed this for causing a deteriorating quality of learning in a country in dire need of highly qualified human capital to drive its target of achieving industrialisation in the next two decades. They also proposed that students pay higher fees to bridge the financing gap in public universities.

The latest funding revelations came as universities braced for what could be their biggest headache ever. East Africa's biggest economy plans to enrol tens of thousands of extra students to clear a backlog that has for decades forced students to wait for two years after high school to enter public higher education.

Universities will have to absorb at least 40,000 extra students - a time bomb that experts have said could explode should the plan not be accompanied by a commensurate rise in funding to enable institutions to expand educational and boarding infrastructure and hire extra tutors.

Not even a tax shift which took effect in January has been able to address the infrastructure problem in universities. The government changed the law to allow investors in educational facilities to claim higher refunds on construction costs.

Previously, the capital deduction was only given to investors in industrial buildings, hotels, plant and machinery and mining.