Private universities, students call for admissions reform

Kenya’s private university investors are lobbying the government to change the law to allow them to attract high-performing school-leavers – currently the preserve of their public rivals – and they have the overwhelming support of students.

The call by private universities echoes proposals contained in the Policy Framework for Education and Training prepared by the Ministry of Education.

It would see the creation of a University Joint Admissions Board to replace the Joint Admissions Board (JAB) – the institution that selects students for public universities.

Private universities have proposed that JAB be restructured to manage admissions both to public and private universities. They argue that students who qualify for university in school-leaving exams should be given the opportunity to pursue a course of their choosing, whether in a public or a private university.

JAB is constituted of vice-chancellors of public universities who usually pick the top students from secondary schools to join their institutions, leaving the rest for private universities.

A survey released last week by Gallup Africa on the status of Kenya’s university education showed that private investors were pushing to have the role and mandate of JAB entrenched in law with equitable representation for private and public universities.

“Private universities offer highly competitive courses, which are desired by students in public universities under government sponsorship, but they cannot transfer to a private university of their choice because they will lose government sponsorship,” said the study.

Meanwhile, a survey has shown that most students back the proposed policy change. Students felt higher education was too rigid and literally dictated where and what they may study.

A vast majority of students – 96% – felt JAB was not doing enough to ensure fairness in allocating university slots. The agency chooses courses and universities for nearly all students in public universities, while students at private institutions make these decisions themselves.

A whopping 93% of students wanted to apply directly for a course and institution – public or private – of their choice. They expressed frustration and called for a restructuring of JAB.

Kenya has been courting private universities to help end an admissions crisis caused by the number of learners being on the increase. Public institutions have been unable to admit all students who qualify for university education.

Last year, the government announced it was in talks with private universities on a deal that would use the massive idle capacity in private institutions to admit state-funded students.

But the plan came a cropper after private providers demanded incentives to which the government declined to agree, as they had heavy budgetary implications for an already strained public purse. One was removal of various taxes, especially one on educational materials.

The country has been scouting for options to help it admit at least 40,000 more students to universities, to help end an admissions backlog that has built up over two decades.

This year more than half of 118,256 eligible students – 76,000 – will miss out on a place. With only 41,000 students securing funded places in public universities, tens of thousands will have to seek admission to costly private universities, join equally expensive ‘parallel’ programmes at public universities or go to colleges or youth polytechnics.

This year more than 5,000 students were asked by JAB to revise their choice of courses. Recent JAB statistics shows that only 33% of students who attained university grades will be joining public universities and their constituent colleges.