Student numbers soar by 35%, university funding lags

Kenya’s public universities admitted record numbers of students last year, beating their fast-growing private sector rivals and defying infrastructure constraints that have been dogging them. New data from the government shows that enrolments to state universities rose by 41%, from 195,428 in 2012 to 276,349 by the end of last year.

In contrast, admissions to private universities increased by just 7.1%, from 45,023 in 2012 to 48,211 in 2013. Since private players continued to invest in infrastructure, which surpasses that of public universities, their expansive facilities remain under used.

As a result of the admissions jump in public institutions, overall student enrolment shot up by 34.9% nationally to reach 324,560, against 240,551 in 2012. Kenya’s Ministry of Planning attributed the rise to new courses, upgrading university colleges to universities and the expansion of private universities.

At least 60% of students enrolled in universities are males, whose enrolment surged by 42% to 193,185 last year while that of female students increased by 25% to 131,375.

Enrolments are expected to hit new highs this year as the government starts admitting state-funded students to private universities – currently, state-funded students can only join public universities.

A further push is expected from upgraded colleges that are to receive higher funding in the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Early last year, Kenya upgraded 15 colleges into fully-fledged universities in a bid to raise capacity for at least 10,000 extra students annually. The upgrade more than tripled the number of public universities, from seven to 22.

Enrolment outstripping funding

Enrolments grew much faster than state funding to universities, upon which they greatly depend. The Economic Survey 2014 showed that subsidies to public universities grew by 6% during the period to reach US$624 million, from US$588 million in 2012.

This means enrolments to public universities rose seven times faster than funding, pushing universities more and more into income generating activities to meet the costs of extra students.

The new data, however, also shows that state capitation of public universities has nearly tripled over the past three years, rising from US$247 million in 2010 to last year’s US$624 million. During this period, enrolments have grown four-fold.

“Funding higher education has emerged as one of the biggest concerns in Kenya, with the surge in student numbers. Government subsidies are no longer enough and universities are going into commercial activities,” said Professor David Some, secretary of the Commission for University Education.

“That said, Kenyan families sacrifice so much for higher education and on analysis contribute more than the government in funding this public good. The cost is an issue,” he told University World News.

The fee issue

The government’s inability to match funding with enrolments is one of the reasons why it is pushing for a review of public university fees, which have remained unchanged since 1995.

Professor Jacob Kaimenyi, cabinet secretary for education, said the current charges were “too low” to sustain quality learning. He is expected to name a team that will spearhead the review of tuition fees in the coming weeks, despite stiff opposition from students.

Strapped for cash because of declining per-student public funding and the fee freeze, public universities introduced ‘parallel' or 'module one' courses charging full fees. This resulted in great disparities in fees paid by state-funded versus self-funded students.

The fee review team, known as the University Fund, is expected to work on a 'differentiated unit cost' funding system that will see students pay tuition fees based on the courses they undertake, with science students paying more than those studying arts. Lecturers will also be differentially paid based on the courses they teach.

Three biggest universities

The new data show that for the third year in a row Kenyatta University was the top destination for students, beating the University of Nairobi, which was previously the biggest institution by student numbers.

According to The Economic Survey, over the past two years Kenyatta has grown enrolments by 23%, from 2012’s 57,100 to 70,006, meaning that it teaches at least 21% of all university students in Kenya.

Kenyatta has been on an expansion binge in the past three years. Along with Moi University, it was given the go-ahead by the government to engage investors in building hostel facilities to cope with rising student numbers, under a build-operate-transfer scheme in which institutions provide land for construction, investors develop hostels and run them for 20 years to recoup investments, and then hand them over to the universities.

The University of Nairobi recorded enrolment of 64,068 last year against 50,885 in 2012, a 25% jump. Nairobi is building a 22-storey complex valued at US$28 million to meet increased demand for academic and administrative facilities. It hopes to finance the building from internal funds and donations.

Moi University emerged a distant third, with 31,500 students.


Despite the surge in student numbers, higher education faces numerous 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.

“We risk growing too fast while not dealing with basic problems of the quality of graduates coming out from universities,” said Irene Ruto, an economist in Nairobi who consults on education.

“We still have complaints from employers that most of the graduates are half-baked. We need to address these challenges as a country,” she said.

Next year, the first group of beneficiaries of free primary education will enter university. Educationists have argued that absorbing a much larger number of students would backfire if not accompanied by a commensurate rise in funding to enable institutions to expand infrastructure and hire extra lecturers.