Plans for 15 new public universities to boost places

Kenya has kicked off plans to upgrade 15 colleges into fully fledged universities as it seeks capacity to enrol at least 10,000 extra students annually. The upgrade will more than triple the number of public universities, from seven to 22.

In just over a month, President Mwai Kibaki has awarded charters to five university colleges, allowing them to admit students and offer degree programmes on their own. He is expected to award charters to another 10 colleges in the next month, before he leaves power.

Kenya goes to the polls on 4 March and Kibaki, who has served his two constitutional terms, will not stand for election.

Two years ago, most colleges were upgraded into university colleges affiliated to Kenya’s seven public universities. Eight of the colleges admitted 4,500 students in the 2012 intake.

On 31 January, in the latest upgrade, Kibaki awarded a charter to Pwani University. In 2007, the institute was upgraded to Pwani University College, as a constituent college of Kenyatta University, Kenya’s second biggest university by student numbers after Nairobi.

A day earlier, he granted a charter to the Technical University of Mombasa, formerly Mombasa Polytechnic. The institution was until recently affiliated to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT.

In mid-January Kenya Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Nairobi, was upgraded to the Technical University of Kenya. Chuka University was formerly a constituent college of Egerton University. And in December a former constituent college of JKUAT became Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, in Nyeri.

Expanding enrolments

Kenya hopes that the new universities, though relatively deprived of facilities, will help admit an additional 10, 000 students and thus ease the country’s admission crisis.

The government has been looking for ways to clear a backlog of 40,000 would-be students – a pool that has grown since 1982 when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup. The backlog worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest against the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat programme in 1991.

The backlog has meant that students who qualify for degree courses following the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams have to wait for two years before they can be admitted to government-funded programmes.

The number of school-leavers seeking university education has been rising faster than universities have been able to expand infrastructure, leading to strained facilities and compromised quality of learning.

Due to space constraints, more than half of the 118,256 eligible students – 76,000 – missed out on a place at a public university in the last intake (in mid-2012).

And with only 41,000 securing places in public universities, the balance were forced to seek education in costly private universities, join the equally expensive ‘parallel programmes’ – fee-charging courses in public institutions – or enter tertiary colleges or youth polytechnics.

The creation of the 15 universities comes at a time when Kenya has begun implementing far-reaching higher education reforms aimed at streamlining and improving the management of university affairs. The Universities Act 2012 came into effect last month.

Expanding while maintaining quality

The thinking behind the upgrade of colleges, educationists and policy-makers said, was to increase the number of graduates while ensuring they received marketable qualifications.

“Institutions of higher and tertiary education must strive to produce the highest quality of graduates. They must continuously benchmark with the best universities in their areas of specialisation, not only in Kenya but also regionally and globally,” said Kibaki.

“This will ensure not only the relevance and global competitiveness of graduates, but also the contribution of the institutions to national development and the global competitiveness of the country.”

Kenya’s higher education sector has faced many challenges, frustrating its ability to produce more graduates. These include inadequate capacity, a mismatch between skills acquired and the demands of industry, gender imbalances, rigid admissions criteria and limited opportunities for credit transfer.

But the upgrade of colleges has been criticised by some educationists, who believe they will leave a huge hole in further and vocational training. The 15 colleges were previously offering diplomas and certificates in areas such as engineering and electronics.

Also, technical institutions have in the past few years come under threat as universities sought expansion avenues to resolve the admissions crisis. This has seen universities collaborating with technical institutions and changing the programmes they offer. Universities have also been taking over teacher colleges.

Last year, the government announced a ban on such take-overs, concerned that mid-tier training institutions were being wiped out.

“While there is need to upgrade the colleges to universities to expand higher education, it is leaving a dangerous gap that will deny the country much-needed technical skills,” said Daniel Ngugi, a lecturer in Nairobi. “It only makes sense if the government can quickly set up new technical colleges to replace the ones which have been upgraded.”

The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology said last year that it would increase spending to strengthen vocational and technical training countrywide. The plan includes building new technical institutions and elevating some to national polytechnic status.

Each of Kenya’s eight provinces is to have a national polytechnic, Higher Education Minister Margaret Kamar said. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports runs at least 750 youth polytechnics – grassroots vocational training schools – and is also reviving these learning centres, most of which have become rundown and unable to offer adequate services.