KENYA: Expanding access via private sector stalls

Kenya's plan to admit at least 40,000 extra students to higher education by partnering with private institutions, in order to help clear a decades-long backlog of places, has stalled amid financial strain and faltering political will.

A spot-check by University World News indicated that the government seems to have developed cold feet on rolling out the plan that was being refined in September last year for kick-off early in 2011 - raising questions over official commitment to ending Kenya's higher education crisis.

Currently government-sponsored students are enrolled only in the country's seven public universities, whose capacity is constrained by rising applicant numbers. But in terms of the plan, government had hoped to tap into the capacity and infrastructure of private universities, which until now have admitted only a quarter of the country's higher education students annually.

Talks with private universities to admit at least 20,000 government-sponsored students have collapsed, as the government is yet to act on several requests private universities had made before they could participate in the deal. Private universities say they have not heard back on the requests and are now questioning government's commitment to engaging them.

While they might not want to speak publicly about the faltering plan, several vice-chancellors and education officials interviewed in Nairobi said it might take longer to implement than previously envisaged.

Public universities, which are also expected to significantly increase admissions to reach the 40,000 target, had insisted on an increase in funding to help them expand infrastructure and enrol the extra learners. But this funding has not been forthcoming.

"Expanding infrastructure is one thing that the government must consider negotiating with universities if the plan is to work effectively," said Professor Olive Mugenda, Vice-chancellor of Kenyatta University.

Educationists and government sources now say would-be students might have to wait until June to know their fate, when East Africa's biggest economy releases its spending plan for the 2011-12 financial year. It is estimated that enrolling the extra students would cost the government at least US$62.5 billion more annually in subsidies to universities.

"Such a project requires serious monetary investments and planning. It's not something that can be done in a fortnight," said an education expert in Nairobi, who is working with government on the plan and requested anonymity.

Private universities had asked the government to consider a number of incentives, such as tax exemptions, to help institutions expand their facilities at a cheaper cost. The institutions had also proposed the introduction of a voucher system at an established unit cost to use idle capacity in private universities.

"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 and founding chair of the Kenyan Association of Private Universities.

"Ideally, we should get tax reductions, cheap finance and elimination of work permit fees for international faculty," she said in a previous briefing with reporters in Nairobi.

Currently, the Kenyan government is facing a financial squeeze in the wake of increased public expenditure arising from unplanned expenses, in an environment where revenue collection has come under intense pressure. This has left no room for investing in new plans.

Doubts over the viability of the 'double intake plan' - which was announced by government at the beginning of 2010 - first emerged when Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta failed to allocate funds to roll it out.

The suspension of higher education minister William Ruto in September has not helped matters either. Ruto, suspended over corruption allegations, was the mastermind behind the project aimed at ending the waiting period for students eligible for university.

He had argued that increasing access to university education and enrolling all eligible students immediately after leaving Form 4 would give Kenya much-needed human capital to drive its growth target of becoming a middle-income economy in the next two decades.

But since Ruto left office the government has uttered no word on the plan, raising concerns that the project was a populist policy that could be too costly for the state to implement and therefore victim to faltering political will.

This is not new in Kenya. Previously, politicians have made major statements on education although financing and implementation have proved difficult, as was the case in 2007 when President Mwai Kibaki announced a free secondary schooling plan. Later the government only rolled it out to day secondary schools after the cost of a blanket implementation proved too high.

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.

Increasing numbers graduating from schools and pressure on students to improve their opportunities in the labour market mean demand for higher education in Kenya will continue to soar, compounding the existing backlog.

The backlog has grown since 1982, when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup, and it worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest at the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat meal programme in June 1991.

It has meant that young people eligible for degree courses after the annual release of the school-leaving examination results in February, but requiring government funding to attend university, have to wait two years before being admitted to government-sponsored university programmes.