Aggressive tactics in regional HE powerhouse race

Uganda is emerging as the regional powerhouse for higher education in East Africa, with its universities aggressively pursuing students and establishing collaborations with colleges in Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan.

The country’s universities have been on a hunting spree over the past four years across the region, netting thousands of students who are now taking courses either in Uganda or through institutions collaborating with Ugandan universities.

Students have been enticed by low fees charged for degree, diploma and certificate courses offered mainly in the humanities, the arts and ICT.

Top in the race to attract East African learners hungry for higher education are Makerere University, Kampala International University, Busoga University and Kampala University, all of which are collaborating with middle-level colleges offering their courses across the region.

The universities have opened offices in major towns around East Africa to provide school-leavers, parents and adult learners with convenient and comprehensive information on courses offered and conditions and requirements for admissions.

In Kenya, for example, the four Ugandan universities have been holding open days several times a year, meeting potential students keen to acquire higher education at relatively low cost. This is besides almost weekly media adverts aimed at wooing students.

The latest entrant in the race is Kampala University, which has taken the game a notch higher and is targeting Kenya’s more than 200,000 teachers for degree, diploma and postgraduate courses, which the university says will be offered during school holidays beginning in December this year.

The holiday courses, while not new in Kenya – for example, during vacations Kenyatta University trains teachers interested in furthering their education – will represent something of a revolution owing to the affordable fees levied by the Ugandan institution and the fact that the courses will be offered in Kenya through various commercial colleges.

The seminars targeting teachers for training in education, counselling and special education are to be held in almost 100 centres in rural Kenya, at fees that will surely be less than half those charged by local institutions.

But with thousands of Kenyans, Tanzanians and Sudanese turning to these institutions, questions are being asked about the quality of courses offered, their relevance to the job market and whether employers are ready to hire people with such qualifications.

Dr Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, said: “Many of these universities are private enterprises driven by the desire to enrol as many students as possible, and quite frankly don’t care about what happens after their students graduate.

“The Ugandan universities are aggressive in marketing themselves, and charge relatively low fees compared to Kenyan universities, for example, and they capitalise on growing demand for affordable higher education.”

Mbataru also told University World News that, in Kenya, Ugandan universities are also able to cash in on a “strange obsession with foreign things” among school-leavers.

The quality of such courses, offered en masse, should worry authorities, Mbataru said, noting that some employers may not readily offer jobs to or upgrade staff coming with qualifications from these universities, especially since learning is offered through commercial colleges with scant facilities, personnel or space.

“Quality control focusing on the content being taught, quality of teaching, where it is being taught, and general standards should be strictly adhered to,” suggested Mbataru.

Uganda is also a popular destination for Kenyan O-level school-leavers keen to pursue A-level studies before joining university. The A-level system in high schools was scrapped in Kenya years ago and replaced by four years of secondary education and a similar duration for university learning.

Particularly students in western Kenya, which neighbours Uganda, are attracted to studying at Ugandan colleges. Many routinely ignore direct admission into Kenyan public universities in favour of enrolling at private ones in Uganda, where the cost of education is still lower than that of public universities at home.

Mbataru predicts that South Sudan will also be a fertile hunting ground for Ugandan institutions, since the country is starting from scratch after achieving independence last year.

While Uganda had a total of 24 universities and a population of 34.5 million people in 2011, Kenya had 29 universities and an estimated 40 million people. Tanzania – the biggest country in terms of land size – had 46 million in 2011 and a total of 17 universities.

Kenya, experts say, leads in the quest for higher education in the region but also charges the highest fees.

But despite Kenya’s ‘leading position’ in the higher education sector, the country has only a few universities that attract international students, namely the United States International University, Catholic University, Daystar University and the KCA University, which is owned by the Kenya College of Accountancy.