KENYA: Private universities to expand access

Kenya plans to use private universities to admit government-sponsored students, in a deal expected to help ease an admissions crisis that state universities have been unable to resolve. The plan, announced last week and the first of its kind in Kenya, will see private universities admitting at least 25,000 extra students in the next two years.

Last Tuesday Higher Education Minister William Ruto held talks with vice-chancellors from Kenya's 23 private universities, to discuss the viability of the project. Treasury, private universities and the ministry are working out the finer details of the plan, expected to kick off early next year, said Ruto.

Currently government-sponsored students are enrolled only in the country's seven public universities, whose capacity is constrained by the rising number of higher education applicants.

But private universities, which annually admit only a quarter of the country's higher education students, have vast capacity and infrastructure standing idle - and the government hopes to tap into this to help clear a backlog of at least 40,000 students.

"The government will pay private universities the same amount of money it spends on each student in a public university," Ruto explained.

As reported in a previous story on this topic, the pool of would-be students has grown since 1982 when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup, and the backlog worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest at the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat meal programme in June 1991.

In turn the backlog has meant that young people eligible for degree courses after the annual release of the school-leaving examination results in February have to wait two years before being admitted to government-sponsored university programmes. By contrast students who can afford self-sponsored courses or private higher education often enrol in October of the same year - giving them an advantage over their peers because they finish university and join the job market earlier.

Administrators in private universities have already made known their expectations if the plan to have them admit government-sponsored students is to work.

"We expect that, going forward, the government will roll out substantial incentives to encourage private universities to expand," said Professor Freida Brown, Vice-chancellor of the United States International University.

"Ideally, we should get tax reductions, cheap finance and elimination of work permit fees for international faculty," she said.

The deal with the private universities is just one of a number of strategies the government is mulling over as it moves to expand access to university education, to give the economy the much needed human capital to drive its long-term growth strategy, Vision 2030.

Kenya will, for example, spend an extra US$293 million on its seven public universities during the next financial year (which began in July), potentially easing the admissions crisis and helping to improve the declining quality of learning. Subsidies to public universities will nearly double, from $360 million to $640 million.

While this is the biggest rise in subsidies to universities in Kenyan history - and is much higher than expected - fears remain that the level of funding is way below what is required to handle soaring admissions.

This is especially so because out of total spending on universities, US$512 million will go on recurring expenses such as salaries, while only US$100 million will be used to finance development projects in public universities.

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 the US$2 billion mark 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 far behind 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%-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 over the years has undermined their expansion plans, including construction of new campuses, at a time when classes were overflowing.

"The other option is to finish all stalled projects in our universities to boost capacity," Ruto told the Kenyan parliament last week.

"With the Treasury, we are considering establishing a Universities Board, which will make cheap money available to our universities; and through the self-sponsored mechanism, they can pay back the money without any additional burden to the Exchequer," he added.

According to the Commission for Higher Education, the body that regulates universities, in addition to seven public universities and 23 private universities Kenya has 13 newly-established constituent colleges attached to the state universities.

Some experts have suggested that expansion of the 13 colleges, established two years ago, could help deal with the 'double intake' programme. But currently the colleges are grappling with inadequate facilities, making them ineffective in meeting their goal of increasing access to higher education.

Kenya is facing soaring demand for higher education as more students seek to improve their opportunities in the labour market, a situation set to intensify as students graduate from schools under subsidised primary and secondary education programmes.

Today, Kenya offers free primary education on which it spends at least US$130 million annually under a plan introduced in 2003. Secondary education in public schools is also partially subsidised at a total cost of $200 million, a programme that was rolled out two years ago.