KENYA: Declining quality drives students overseas

Perceived poor quality of university education in Kenya could be pushing students out of the country. A recent survey by Synovate, a consumer research firm, revealed that most Kenyans would prefer to study abroad, where they believe universities guarantee quality learning and are prestigious.

Of 1,044 students polled in the survey, 57% of them said they would prefer to study in a foreign university than a local one. "The findings show that there is still much to be done to boost confidence in Kenya's universities," said Synovate Managing Director George Waititu.

Educationalists said the findings indicate that problems facing universities, especially public institutions - such as over-flowing classes, strained facilities, high fees and shortages of lecturers - are turning students away from local study.

Government statistics show that the number of Kenyans issued with study visas has been rising in recent years. Three top destination countries - the US, Britain and Australia - issued more than 7,000 visas to students last year compared to just over 6,000 in 2008.

Kenya's universities are also said to be more expensive than their regional counterparts. More than 20,000 Kenyan students are estimated to be studying in Ugandan universities and slightly below a quarter of that number are in other neighboring countries such as Tanzania.

But experts pointed out the most students travelling overseas for study are from rich families, and most parents cannot afford the high fees charged by many foreign universities. Official statistics show that Kenyan households already spend as much as half on their earnings on education, much of it on higher education as the state substantially subsidises schooling.

"For those who can afford it, foreign education is seen as a sure bet as it gives a student a near assurance in the job market. This is because those universities have excellent teaching facilities and staff," said a human resources manager for a leading firm, who did not wish to be named.

"The problem is that most students who attend local universities lack some of the critical skills needed in the job market." He added that universities imparted theory but too few technical skills.

The credentials of Kenyan universities in the international arena have been waning, adding a to challenges facing the country in reforming higher education to help boost human capital.

A recent survey by Spain's Webometrics, which ranks universities according to their web presence, showed Kenya's top universities slipping several places in January compared to July last year. It indicates that local universities have been slow to adapt to new technologies.

No Kenyan university made it into the top 1,000 list of the 2010 Academic Ranking of World Universities, produced by Shanghai Jao Tong University in China, reflecting the low standing of the country's institutions. This also inhibits partnerships with top international universities and donor funding.

Demand for higher education has soared in Kenya, as more and more school-leavers qualify for university study and seek to increase their opportunities in the labour market.

However, local universities do not have nearly enough places to meet the demand, further fueling the exodus of students to foreign universities. Educationists maintain this has also opened loopholes for rogue institutions offering degrees and diplomas to thrive, dealing a further blow to the reputation of higher education in the country.

The government admits the challenge. "The quality of learning in some universities has been declining," said the country's new National Strategy for University Education. "There is a shortage of doctoral level lecturers as a result of rapid expansion and brain drain."