KENYA: Funding boost for public universities

Kenya will spend an extra US$293 million on its seven public universities during the next financial year beginning in July, potentially easing a biting admission crisis plaguing the institutions and improving a dwindling quality of learning. Subsidies to universities will nearly double, from $360 million to $640 million.

The 2010-11 budget for East Africa's biggest economy, read on 10 June, also revealed that much of the allocation will 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 is much higher than expected - fears still abound that the level is funding is way below what is required to handle soaring admissions.

This is especially so because out of 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.

Experts said the new allocation would not be enough to finance the planned enrolment of tens of thousands of extra students to clear an admissions backlog that has for decades forced students to wait for two years after high school to enter public higher education.

The government is yet to announce when a double-intake of students to ease the admissions backlog will begin. A team of education officials and vice-chancellors is working on the modalities of the expanded admissions roll-out.

The double-intake plan will see universities absorb at least 40,000 extra students - a time-bomb that experts 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.

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 did not grow in tandem.

Over the past five years, enrolments have been rising by at least 40% annually while subsidies have increased by 4% to 5 % over the period. According to the government's Economic Survey 2010, released last month, the number of students in public universities was 143,000 last year - 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.

Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta singled out development of adequate human capital as the key to economic prosperity, justifying the increased spending on education.

The school sector will gobble up a large chunk of the US$12.4 billion national budget. A total of $2.3 billion will be spent on primary, secondary and university education - 18% of the total budget.

"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," Kenyatta said.

"We must do more to ensure our people are appropriately skilled to be able to engage effectively in economically meaningful activities."

The admissions crisis has slowed down the transition of qualified students from secondary schools to higher education, throwing into jeopardy Kenya's prospects of realising an 80% transition rate by 2020.

More than 200,000 secondary 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.

Experts have argued that the failure of higher education to match enrolment needs could trigger a wave of fee increases as institutions seek extra money to support larger student populations.