Thriving private universities compete for students

Competition for students among private universities in Kenya is intensifying, with institutions taking to both the electronic and print media to advertise programmes and display achievements. The private higher education sector is thriving, and now enrols 20% of all students.

Some universities are going a step further, buying expensive airtime on television and in print media, showcasing prominent alumni they consider role models – mostly successful media and corporate personalities – to prove that they have produced world-class professionals, in the hope that such displays will attract more students to their institutions.

Engaged in the competition are the United States International University, Kenya Methodist University, the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Mount Kenya University and Daystar University, with the latter three being most aggressive in the race to outdo one another.

The campaigns demonstrate just how much the sector has grown in the past decade.

Rapid growth

There are some 300,000 students in public and private universities in Kenya. The largest public universities – Nairobi, Kenyatta and Moi – enrol some 150,000 students, or half of the total student population.

Currently enrolling around 60,000 students – one in five of all students, according to Commission for University Education figures – private universities and colleges in the East African country have registered tremendous growth in the past 13 years.

Indeed, the country has seen accelerated growth in both sectors since 2003, with institutions taking over downtown buildings, acquiring colleges or buying huge chunks of land to cope with rising demand.

Kenya now has some 22 fully accredited public universities and nine constituent university colleges, as well as 17 chartered private universities and five constituent colleges. Some 12 private universities hold interim letters of authority from the Commission for University Education, and are awaiting upgrading to full university status – against only five in 2002.

Despite challenges regarding both physical facilities and personnel, private universities have become the institutions of choice for many students.

Professor Freida Brown, vice-chancellor of United States International University in Nairobi, attributes the fast growth of the private sector in Kenya to spiralling demand for higher education and widespread belief that a degree is required to get a good job, or to advance in a job.

“Also, the inability initially of the public sector to accommodate the large numbers seeking university education, that includes traditional students and returning or working students, has been a factor,” she told University World News.

Furthermore, some investors saw private higher education as providing a good return on investment, said Brown. “This has happened in the United States as well, with the rapid growth of the for-profit sector.”

Brown believes the private sector will continue to grow, depending on government policy and actions. If students with government funding were allowed to enrol in private universities, numbers would rise even faster, she said.

Quality, support and infrastructure

She predicted that a clear distinction would eventually emerge between the quality of education offered by private universities and that offered by public universities, with the private sector having an upper hand – pushing more students in their direction.

“Just like in the basic education sector, the introduction of free primary education in Kenya saw both a massive increase in the public sector as well as private institutions with good reputations.

“The overcrowding in the public sector facilitated growth in the private. I believe the same will happen in university education,” Brown noted.

The private higher education sector in Kenya – and across Africa – was not growing at the expense of public universities, said Brown.

She noted that many public universities were raising millions of dollars from privately sponsored students, besides getting support from external sources – a luxury that institutions like hers did not have – blurring the boundary between private and public.

“Most public universities in Kenya have more self-sponsored than government-sponsored students. I often refer to them as highly subsidised private universities; they actually have access to significantly more resources than the private sector.

“The primary difference is that the private sector has to have a balanced budget, since available external funding is limited,” she continued.

While public universities continued to suffer a lack of adequate physical facilities, many private institutions were doing well in terms of facilities – especially given that they were not into the mass production of graduates and did not offer some of the science and engineering courses that demand heavy investment in expensive equipment.

However, private institutions suffer a shortage of qualified teaching staff, just like their counterparts in the public sector, with Kenya experiencing a shortage of doctoral graduates who could staff its burgeoning higher education sector.

The Commission for University Education has recommended that universities in both sectors produce 200 to 300 doctoral graduates each year to meet the demand for academics, which is now reaching crisis levels.

To solve the staffing problem, Brown said that the government should consider lowering work permit fees to encourage international academics to seek jobs in Kenya and alleviate the lecturer shortage.

To overcome infrastructure challenges, private institutions are considering collaborating. “As privates we are beginning to look at ways of pooling resources so that we can benefit from the resources, both facilities and human, that we have,” the rector told University World News.