Academic shortage deepens as student numbers soar

The number of professors working in Kenya’s seven older public universities has risen by a measly 11% over the past three years while student numbers have soared by 56%, highlighting the challenge the country faces in matching enrolments with lecturers.

Statistics released by the Commission for University Education, or CUE, show that the number of professors rose from 238 in 2010 to 265 by February this year. This pushed academic staff numbers in the seven universities to 5,189 from around 4,800 three years ago – 8% growth.

During the same period, student numbers shot from 140,000 in 2010 to 218,832 this year, which means that lecturers are being forced to take on a bigger workload, possibly compromising already shaky quality of learning.

While five of the seven universities have grown their number of professors, two have seen the number drop slightly. The University of Nairobi has the highest number of professors at 124, up from 110, followed by Moi University, which now has 42, down from 49.

Kenyatta had 29 full professors but now has 27, while Maseno has seen its number of professors rise from 17 to 22. Jomo Kenyatta, Egerton and Masinde Muliro universities each had 11 professors three years ago and now have 22, 12 and 15 respectively.

The lecturer to student ratio varies between universities. The University of Nairobi, with 57,162 students, has an academic staff of 1,610 – meaning the lecturer to student ratio is 1:36.

Kenyatta University, the country’s biggest with 61,928 students, has 961 academics and so there are on average 65 students per lecturer. Moi has a ratio of 1:47, with its 34,477 students and 736 teaching staff, and at the other institutions the ratio ranges from 1:31 to 1:39.

Although the number of qualified lecturers has been rising, it lags far behind student growth, forcing many universities to hire underqualified staff for academic positions.

CUE’s predecessor, the Commission for Higher Education or CHE, downplayed the impact of low staffing levels. The new body has been given wider regulatory scope in far-reaching reforms to the higher education sector that kicked off in January.

Educationists said the staffing crisis in public universities was expected to worsen this year, with yet more students enrolling and the number of universities rising. Kenya has embarked on a plan to increase the number of public universities from the current seven to 22.

Over the past two months, outgoing President Mwai Kibaki has awarded university charters to 15 technical colleges, allowing them to offer degrees on their own. Previously the colleges were aligned to public universities.

Due to space constraints, more than half of 118,256 eligible students – 76,000 – missed out on a place at a public university last year. Public universities are under pressure to provide admission to 40,000 students over and above the usual intake to eradicate an admissions backlog, under a double-intake plan that started last year.

Demand for higher education far exceeds the supply of places, prompting increasing numbers of students to study abroad, especially in Uganda, the US, Malaysia and the UK.

Educationists maintain that unmet demand has also opened space for rogue institutions offering sub-standard qualifications to thrive, undermining the reputation of higher education.

It will be interesting to see if universities will raise staffing levels with an anticipated boost in government funding. Kenya has increased funding for higher education by 30% for the financial year beginning in July.

The Ministry of Finance said in its spending plan that funding for the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology would be increased from KSh61 billion (US$717 million) during the current year to KSh80 billion (US$941 million) in the coming year. Universities will see funding reach KSh60 billion.