KENYA: Review of university courses, stress on S&T

In a bid to link higher education funding to society's long-term economic goals, Kenya plans to review courses offered by the country's public universities, putting emphasis on science and technology - a shift that could see dozens of popular courses scrapped. And Higher Education Minister William Ruto said only science and technology students at public universities would in future be assured of government funding.

The higher education minister reckons that priority for funding should be based on the actual cost of mounting the course and how it contributes to the achievement of Vision 2030, Kenya's long-term economic blueprint.

Technocrats say the move is meant to ensure universities churn out adequate and relevant skills for the labour market, which is crucial for Kenya's attainment of middle-income economy status in the next two decades - a future anchored on science and technology.

"Going forward, courses will be funded differently depending on how they contribute to creating the human resources required for economic growth," Ruto said.

Currently all courses are funded on an equal basis yet some, like medicine and architecture, cost more. The policy shift means that students could soon find themselves footing the entire fee bill for courses like history and anthropology if universities continue offering them.

Less than half of Kenya's 100,000 plus students in public universities are enrolled in science and technology-related courses, according to government statistics. This means the shift could face stiff opposition from educationists and students alike.

"What do they mean that the government will not fund courses other than science and technology?" quipped Michael Kimani, a fourth-year university student. "All these courses are needed in the economy. Maybe what we need to do is to ensure what is taught is in tandem with what employers want," Kimani said.

Proposals that public universities should increase emphasis on courses such as engineering, medicine, architecture and physical planning have been made in the past, with policy-makers citing the need to boost technical skills in the economy.

But some educationists have faulted the proposal announced last week by Ruto, saying all courses being offered currently are relevant and the latest move is intended to deny universities funding.

"All these courses are equally important as they produce the country's human resources, including those working in museums, historical research and even management," said Musalia Edebe, organising secretary of the Universities Academic Staff Union, a powerful lobby group of lecturers.

"Focusing on science and technology only would be counterproductive, as the economy is driven by multiple variables. When we decide not to fund other programmes, it will be expensive as it will mean that in future expatriates would be employed to cover such fields," said Edebe.

Experts also argue that the latest moves could lead to job losses for thousands of lecturers teaching the courses that are facing the axe.

The proposal on review of courses comes at a time when Kenyan universities are reeling from a quality crisis - they are weighed down by overflowing classes, strained facilities and a shortage of lecturers - watering down the quality of learning.

For example, Kenya has an estimated 8,000 lecturers and educationists have calculated that nearly double that number is needed to meet the country's higher education needs.

The country is also facing soaring demand for higher education as more students seek to increase their opportunities in the labour market, a situation set to intensify as subsidised primary and secondary education programmes contribute to increased school-leaver numbers.

The call to review courses is among a raft of changes aimed at improving what institutions of higher learning teach, and focusing on improving the country's technical skills.

As previously reported, the country is also to spend US$56 million in donor funding to strengthen vocational and technical training countrywide, in a plan that will include building new technical institutions and elevating some to national polytechnic status. Each of Kenya's eight provinces will have a national polytechnic, said ministry of higher education, science and technology officials.

Educationists also see the new initiatives as a way of improving Kenya's industrial competitiveness in the region as markets expand through integration of the East African Community. In July the EAC launched a common market that will see its five member countries opening up their borders to goods, labour and services.