Universities’ scramble for space fuels property boom

In the basement of Church House in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, worshippers gather at one end of a room for evening prayers. At the other end of the dimly lit space, students of the Presbyterian University of East Africa finish assignments for a 17h00 class. The noise from the enthusiastic worshippers fills the room, but the students are at ease. They are used to it.

Ten minutes later, the lecturer arrives and the two-hour class is on. Until the church service ends an hour later, the students try to ignore the worshippers and tune in to the academic.

Such scenarios have become increasingly common as universities in Kenya grapple with soaring student numbers and straining infrastructure. Learning space has become scarce in universities, including in private institutions with previously under-utilised facilities.

Institutions are swooping on any available space, renting off-campus buildings and in the process helping to drive up property prices in major towns across the East African country.

It is now becoming commonplace for commercial buildings in cities, especially Nairobi, to host university or college classes. In the past year, several private universities have sunk millions of dollars into buying buildings to get extra space for students.

The space race

The University of Nairobi, Kenya’s biggest institution in terms of student numbers, has in the past two years acquired at least three buildings in its vicinity, beating commercial banks and listed companies to close deals for some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

Within academic circles, a section of Nairobi City near the University of Nairobi is now referred to as the University District.

At least nine universities – including Nairobi, Kenya Methodist University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Moi University and the Presbyterian University of East Africa – have set up bases in the area, joined by several colleges.

Over the past two years, educationists estimate that public and private universities have spent more than KSh6 billion buying buildings and parking space in Nairobi alone.

Barely a year ago, Eldoret-based Moi University came calling in Nairobi, splashing out around KSh1.5 billion (US$18 million) to buy a 20-storey building that previously housed the Teachers Service Commission, the agency that hires teachers on behalf of the government.

Jomo Kenyatta University has occupied a building next to the University of Nairobi, less than 20 metres from another facility owned by Kenya Methodist University, one of the oldest private universities. Last year, the latter acquired another building, Posta Sacco, with more than 15 floors at a cost of nearly KSh1.3 billion, where it is housing some of its students.

In big towns like Kisii, Thika, Eldoret, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Nyeri, universities have been opening satellite campuses, locating them in commercial buildings.

Even for universities with huge tracts of land on the outskirts of Nairobi where they are based, like Kenyatta – the second largest in the country – and Moi, the race for space is on. They have opened campuses in big towns, either buying or renting space in buildings.

In Kisii, the property drive has reached a crescendo. Kisii University College has emerged one of the big winners, taking most of the buildings in the satellite town. Others there include Jomo Kenyatta and the new Kenya Institute of Management University, which was recently upgraded to become a fully fledged university.

In Nakuru, Egerton University – located at least 20 kilometres away from the western Kenyan town, on its outskirts – is calling the shots. Mombasa and Eldoret are battlefields for the universities of Nairobi, Kenyatta and Moi, while Kisumu currently hosts Maseno and the University of Nairobi, among others.

Thika town, 35 kilometres from Nairobi, has two of Kenya’s newest private universities, Gretsa and Mount Kenya, which now control several buildings there.

Educationists believe the battle for space will intensify in the coming years as more students seek admissions to higher education.

Expansion driven by student demand

The scramble for space can be attributed to rising student demand and increased competition between universities, prompting them to rethink their infrastructure strategies.

Universities have been competing both for school-leaving students and for people seeking additional qualifications, such as MBAs.

Latest statistics show that enrolment in Kenya’s universities has jumped 65% over the past three years, from 120,000 students in 2008 to 198,260 at the end of last year. The Economic Survey 2012 revealed that there are now at least 67 universities – local and foreign – operating in Kenya, up from around 30 five years ago.

University administrators are not having it easy as numbers surge. In the next three months, Kenya will admit 7,000 extra students to its universities under the government-sponsored programme, bringing the total of new students this year to 41,000 – up from the 34,000 first-year students admitted last year: a 20% jump.

The government is banking on additional capacity created by 13 new constituent colleges hived off from public universities. Eight new university colleges created in the past year will admit 4,500 of the additional 7,000 students, an indication that due to infrastructural strains Kenya’s existing universities are finding it increasingly difficult to boost intake.

The number of school-leavers seeking university education has been rising faster than the rate at which universities can create new capacity, despite all the property activity. Facilities have become strained and the quality of learning compromised.

And expansion is being constrained.

“Funding is the biggest challenge. Everyone wants to go to school. But the government can’t cope with the numbers. So university administrators have to think outside the box,” said Professor George Magoha, vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi.