KENYA: State to launch e-learning university

Kenya plans to launch a multi-million dollar e-learning university next year, potentially increasing higher education access and easing an admissions crisis plaguing public universities. The National Open University of Kenya will enable students to pursue their degree dreams through online learning, a trend already practiced on a small scale by private universities.

Higher Education Minister William Ruto said the new state institution would absorb a large number of students who, despite attaining the minimum university admission grade of C+ and above in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, could not attend public universities because of limited slots.

The admissions crisis in East Africa's biggest economy has been fed by growing numbers of school-leavers due to subsidised primary and secondary schooling and soaring demand for higher education as students seek to improve their opportunities in the labour market.

The e-learning university is one of three strategies being pursued by Kenya to help admit a backlog of at least 40,000 extra students, which has built up for close to three decades as universities have been unable to enrol all qualified school-leavers.

Many students who qualify for degree study after the release of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in February each year have to wait for up to two years before they can be admitted to government-sponsored programmes.

By contrast, those who can afford self-sponsored courses or private higher education often enrol in October of the same year. Many other students cannot afford the prohibitive costs of parallel degree programmes. Private universities are equally expensive.

"The establishment of this university is tailored to address the critical issue of access by giving Kenyans more opportunities to study in their own time and at their convenience," said Ruto. "Through the internet, in a clearly defined mechanism, they can learn from the stations where they are without necessarily going to the university," he added.

The new approach will use a range of platforms to allow students to follow lectures online, interact with lecturers, submit assignments and check on their grades, an approach adopted by several private and public universities locally. Lecturers will also be able to upload course materials, post assignments and generate online discussions via blogs.

In Kenya, successful electronic-based degree programmes have been dominated by foreign and international qualifications, mostly postgraduate degrees featuring collaborations between local private institutions and foreign institutions.

"The idea of an open university is long overdue. Kenya needs to push through enough strategies that will not only improve access to higher education but also ensure that it offers quality learning," said James Mwai, an education researcher in Nairobi.

"There is also a need to encourage all public universities to invest in online learning to ease the strain on physical facilities, which it has become too expensive to expand," Mwai said.

Opening of an eighth state university is expected to further increase government's allocation to institutions from this year's figure of US$640 million, which is US$293 million higher than government spending on institutions in 2009.

Public universities rely heavily on state funding. Over the years, failure to increase funding in line with enrolments undermined their expansion plans, including constructing new campuses, at a time when classes were overflowing.

As reported previously,, in another move aimed at easing the admissions crisis, Kenya plans to use private universities to admit government-sponsored students. This innovative approach will see private universities - which have vast capacity and infrastructure that is currently under-utilised - admit at least 25,000 extra students in the next two years.

"Private universities could help admit the extra students as long as there are incentives and good structures to support such a plan," said Professor Freida Brown, Vice-chancellor of the United States International University.

Kenya also hopes that the expansion of colleges will help deal with the admissions problem. But inadequate facilities have so far prevented colleges from meeting their goal of increasing access to higher education.