New universities struggle to accommodate students

The room has only three simple beds and a roughly hewn coffee table with an overflowing ashtray, some A4 notebooks and a lot of dust. It is one of 16 student rooms built in a block on a minute piece of land surrounded by a barbed wire fence at Chuka University, until a year ago a former constituent college of Kenya’s Egerton University.

This is the hard side of the rapid expansion of higher education in Kenya, where far greater numbers of students have opportunities than a decade ago but universities are hard-pressed to accommodate them – in classrooms or residences.

A year ago, the government allowed 15 constituent colleges of universities to upgrade their status to full universities, as part of its drive to meet growing demand for higher education. This increased the number of public universities from seven to 22.

In 2010 there were some 140,000 tertiary students in Kenya. Their numbers rose to around 219,000 in 2012 and Kenya’s Economic Survey 2013 revealed that there are now as many as 240,000 students.

At Chuka University, on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya in Tharaka-Nithi county, in the student accommodation block hurriedly constructed last year, the rooms are hot and stuffy. The walls and roof are made of corrugated iron, so the rooms are inhospitable in the heat.

The three beds in Joseph Mutua’s room are separated with some old pieces of curtain to offer the occupants at least a sense of privacy, and under each bed is a massive travel bag overflowing with poorly packed clothes. All three occupants are students in the faculty of agriculture.

“It has been a tough semester so far. This is what we have for accommodation, but we find it both affordable and convenient considering it is located less than 100 metres from the campus,” says Mutua.

With numerous other structures made of corrugated iron with shared bathrooms and toilet facilities springing up in the university neighbourhood, Mutua reckons that the stage is set for what will end up being a slum where none existed before, propelled by demand for accommodation.

“As students, we have been left alone by university heads to look for accommodation wherever we can get it. So we found a room here and it is cheap, paying Ksh3,000 (about US$36) between us is quite okay,” he says.

A widespread problem

The situation facing Mutua is replicated across many institutions recently upgraded into full universities – but with little funding to match the new status. There are an estimated 30,000 additional learners having to look for housing wherever they can find it.

The result is that shopping centres and farmland around the new universities are degenerating into shantytowns comprising shacks built cheaply with iron – housing that is barely fit for habitation but is popular with students, most of whom come from poor backgrounds.

“The situation is the same in all the former colleges that have been promoted to universities in recent years,” James Oloo a lecturer at Bondo University in Western Kenya, told University World News.

“The administrators never seriously invested in housing and the result is that learners are now living in insecure settlements where crime is rife.

“Students using meagre amounts from loans extended by the government are finding themselves with no choice but to seek housing in dirty, congested and crime filled slums that are sprouting all around the new universities to meet the demand from the huge numbers,” the bio-chemistry lecturer added.

The lack of planning has meant that students – many of them young and impressionable – are getting into illicit activities, a common feature in poor settlements across Kenya.

“You find students peddling drugs, making illegal brews for their own consumption or even running makeshift kiosks where they sell cheap liquor,” noted James Kabage, a student at Dedan Kimathi University of Science and Technology in central Kenya, another of the new universities.

The accommodation crisis there is also affecting lecturers, with an estimated half of them commuting 100 kilometres a day to and from houses in Nyeri, the biggest town in the region.

The problem of lecturers residing far from their place of work has also been noted at Bondo University. Academics are forced to live as far away as the towns of Kisumu and Siaya where, besides housing, good schools for their children are within reach.

While the Kenyan government has been lauded for its efforts to expand access to higher education by upgrading the status of some middle-level colleges, it has also been criticised for not spending enough on expanding facilities to meet the demands of more learners.

“It is hard to believe that students can live in such deplorable conditions as we are seeing now,” said Wahome Githui, a neighbour of Chuka University who said he lived in relative “luxury” as a pharmacy student at Kenyatta University in the late 1970s.

In those days decent accommodation, food and even entertainment was offered to learners free of charge and students’ cash stipends – popularly known as ‘boom’ – were guaranteed, Githui observed.

While some students who live within commuting distance, especially in major towns, have opted to operate from home, this is not possible for students from far-off places.

Many investors without real capital have been vying to take advantage of the shortage of housing, but have ended up constructing sub-standard accommodation.

A possible solution

Professor Ratemo Michieka, former vice-chancellor of Egerton University and currently chair of the council of the University of Nairobi, believes finding a solution is possible.

He advocates forming partnerships with the private sector to overcome the chronic accommodation shortage, arguing that few universities if any in Kenya – including the oldest ones – can hope to offer housing to the large numbers of students they are expected to admit.

“Student numbers are growing each year and it is unlikely that institutions are going to have the capital required to build hostels for everyone,” he notes.

He advises universities to negotiate with banks and private developers, and to come up with joint projects to ensure the learners are accommodated and companies earn income from rental as part of public-private partnerships.

“Many institutions have enough land. It should now be upon them to be creative and talk to investors who can put up hostels to ease the problem.”

Already Kenyatta University is planning such a project with private developers, to have thousands of units built on its expansive land in the heart of Nairobi to ensure that affordable but decent accommodation is accessible to its large student population.