Private higher education shuns STEM courses

Despite growing by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years and expanding higher education access to thousands of needy learners, private universities in Kenya continue to shun science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – courses, leaving the heavy financial and infrastructural burdens of these subjects to poorly funded public institutions.

While private universities are equipping graduates with critical skills that are contributing to development, experts are concerned that the responsibility for training the far greater number of scientists and engineers needed to drive economic transformation is currently being shouldered by STEM faculties in too few state universities.

Instead, the mushrooming numbers of private institutions – as elsewhere in Africa – are opting to teach popular and low-cost arts, humanities and business programmes.

The number of private institutions in East Africa has grown from fewer than 20 in the early 1990s to more than 50 now. But almost none of them offer courses in STEM or related fields. The closest they come is teaching information and communication technology, a field that is increasingly popular.

“Sustainable development in Africa will be attained much faster when we build and improve capacity in the sciences,” Peggy Oti-Boateng, coordinator of UNESCO’s Nairobi-based African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, told University World News.

Despite the expense, governments had no choice but to invest in STEM programmes if higher education was to produce the skills needed by industry and for economic transformation, among other ways by improving facilities and training more lecturers, she argued.

What private universities say

Private institutions cite the financial costs and high entry marks required of students for admission to STEM courses as reasons why they are shunning these subjects. But some players in higher education also blame lack of student interest and employment opportunities.

Also, said Irene Wattanga, associate dean in the faculty of engineering at the private Multi Media University of Kenya in Nairobi, STEM subjects were demanding. “Students, both male and female, may not like courses that are heavy.”

David Sperling, a research professor and senior research fellow in the governance centre at Kenya’s private Strathmore University, agreed. Sciences were not generally attractive to students in Kenya, he said.

“I don't think private universities are shying away [only] because of the cost. Mainly it is because of the relatively low demand for admission compared with, say, commerce or IT.

“Given the possibility of direct entry to science-based professional courses – medicine, pharmacy, engineering or architecture from form four – science in general is not an attractive university option, even as an undergraduate degree in public universities”, Sperling said.

Instead, private universities were offering degrees in ICT, which did not need heavy investment in equipment and whose graduates were in high demand in the market. He pointed out that there were fewer engineering jobs in Kenya than 20 years ago.

“Strathmore, for example, began offering a degree in telecommunications some three to four years ago. This is an engineering-related degree that does not require heavy investment in equipment. At the same time, there is a high demand in the communication sector for such skills and training.”

Mathematics as a stand-alone degree, Sperling said, was in low demand. So even though the cost of teaching maths was low, many universities shunned the field. Because so few universities now offered the subject, those that did were reporting student interest.

Bucking the trend?

An exception to this trend could be in the offing, if Kenya’s United States International University, or USIU, keeps its promise and launches programmes in pharmacy.

Vice-chancellor Freida Brown said in a speech that USIU was investing Ksh500 million (US$ 50.3 million) in developing laboratories, lecture rooms and administration offices for a faculty that is due to be completed at the end of 2014 – a first for the country’s oldest private university.

“Across the globe, countries are looking at STEM programmes to transform their societies. Kenya is no exception. USIU is also moving in this direction to facilitate that transformation,” the vice-chancellor said.

Currently, pharmacy is only offered at the universities of Kenyatta, Moi and Nairobi, and they require high marks for admission. A trend has been for private universities to admit students with lower cut-off marks than those required by public institutions – something that has set them on a collision course with professional bodies.