KENYA: Higher education reforms on the cards

Kenya has hatched a series of new strategies to reform its higher education sector, which call for new university campuses to be created in rural areas and funding to be upped to enable more students to be enrolled in the coming years.

The government's National Strategy for University Education, to be implemented by 2015, wants existing universities to set up campuses in strategic rural areas that specialise in assigned fields.

Demand for higher education has soared, as more and more young school-leavers qualify for university study and seek to increase their opportunities in the labour market. But universities do not have nearly enough places to meet the demand.

The plan has the potential to increase higher education access and ease the admissions crisis plaguing public universities. It will be supported by intensive investment in digital and distance learning that will enable students to pursue degrees through online learning - a trend already practised on a small scale by several Kenyan universities.

But its crafters said the plan would only work if the government further raises its 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. Today Kenya has seven public universities, 13 recently established constituent colleges attached to the state universities, and 23 private universities, according to the regulatory Commission for Higher Education.

Some experts had suggested that expansion of the 13 constituent colleges, established two years ago, could help deal with the admissions backlog in public universities. But the colleges seem not to be doing the trick. They are grappling with inadequate facilities, making them ineffective in meeting their goal of improving access.

The new strategy will see universities, all of which are currently clustered in urban areas, spread their wings to more rural areas and offer locally appropriate courses such as dry-land farming, tourism and hospitality, marine sciences and environmental resources.

The thinking behind this, educationists involved in the reforms said, is also to give a much-needed human capital boost to the Kenyan economy's key drivers, agriculture and tourism.

"The establishment of new universities should take into consideration national interests and regional disparities," says the strategy.

"In expanding universities through the creation of campus colleges, measures should be taken to avoid acquisition by universities of existing tertiary and middle-level institutions that are so ensuring continued supply of required technical skills."

Universities are currently the responsibility of the central government. The strategy suggests that large municipalities be encouraged to set up new universities using their resources.

"Additionally, the concept of a corporate university where a company establishes a university to train manpower relevant to its core business, could be explored further," says the strategy.

However, fears are rife in education circles that the expansion plan, if not well executed, could further erode higher education quality. "There is a shortage of doctoral-level lecturers as a result of rapid expansion and brain drain," says the strategy.

"The quality of learning in some universities has been declining, having [a] negative effect on undergraduate and graduate degree programmes in science, engineering and technology."