University expansion threatens vocational training

Concern is growing in Kenya’s higher education sector that the country may soon face a critical shortage of mid-level professionals and technicians, due to the rapid expansion of public universities that are swallowing up institutions offering vocational qualifications.

The trend, which started in the late 1990s when the country had only three public universities, has seen the number of public universities and their constituent colleges grow to nearly 30, as demand for higher education has soared.

The establishment of some 20 private universities has intensified competition for students, and pressurised public institutions to expand, diversify the courses they offer and build facilities they struggle to afford.

As a result, universities have been taking over diploma- and certificate-offering institutions and orienting them towards degree-level studies, reducing the number of places on offer for school-leavers who are not qualified for degree study.

This has created a vacuum that is now being filled by a plethora of commercial colleges, many of them established in commercial and residential areas in towns across Kenya. They have become known as ‘backstreet’ colleges and are dismissed by some employers as offering poor quality training.

Worst hit have been teacher training colleges that offer diploma and certificate courses. Eight of these colleges have been taken over and now offer higher education qualifications.

Also hit are Government Training Institutes (GTIs) that in the past offered advanced in-service training for lower cadre civil servants, including clerks, secretaries, typists, machine operators and messengers.

Four such institutions are now constituent colleges of universities, and government personnel wishing to upgrade their skills and earn promotion now have to fight for places in the few remaining GTIs or attend private colleges, even though the government – despite registering these institutions – shows scant respect for their qualifications.

“The sector is liberalised and there is great demand for university education,” said Dr Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer in the school of agriculture and enterprise development at Kenyatta University, in response to calls for an end to the takeovers of colleges.

Mbataru told University World News that the high cost of establishing new facilities from scratch, and the time it takes for the public to become acquainted with a new university, could be among the reasons why universities have opted to take over established institutions and convert them into constituent ‘university colleges’.

“Cost in the broadest sense is a reason, [as well as] time to put up new facilities and the cost related to marketing new locations,” he said.

In some instances political leaders, wanting to see the benefits of a university for their home regions, have pitched for the conversion of local institutions into colleges of universities, knowing that after some years they will become fully-fledged universities that could have a positive impact on local economic growth and education levels and interest.

This in Mbataru’s view is not necessarily a bad thing, even when it comes from politicians and is thus not informed by academic imperatives. “Expanding university opportunities is not a bad thing given the high demand for it, irrespective of the motive,” he told University World News.

Latest among colleges being taken over is Murang’a College of Technology in central Kenya, an institution renowned for producing top quality diploma-holding industry and business technicians. Last month it became an affiliate of Jomo Kenyatta College of Agriculture and Technology.

Vice-chancellor Professor Mabel Imbuga was, however, emphatic that the institution would continue offering diploma courses to students, as has been its tradition.

Mbataru thinks this could be a solution to the looming problem of scarce mid-level personnel. Perhaps universities should be required to continue to offer the courses of colleges they take over. A radical measure, he suggested, could be to abolish diploma and certificate courses and make university degrees the only qualification for post-school education and training.

Kenya has a total of 52 public, private and constituent university college institutions with a total population of 251,000 students, up from just 81,000 in 2003, according to the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

Technical and vocational institutions currently enroll 79,000 students in 40 colleges, up from 34,000 students in 2003, most of them in polytechnics offering grade tests and certificates.

The government has been talking about the need to expand post-school education in a country of some 40 million people, 60% of them under 35 years.

Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar has called for an end to college conversions, but her ministry has not enacted laws to stop the practice.