Kenya seeks US$23.5 million for digital university

Kenya is seeking private investors to set up an ambitious online university to ease an enrolment crisis. After a three-year shortfall in funding – which saw the government raise only US$282,300 for the US$36 million project – it has changed course regarding finance.

Education Cabinet Secretary Professor Jacob Kaimenyi said in July that the government would look for private investors to pump at least US$23.5 million into the project.

The Open University of Kenya – which is set to become the country's eighth public university – will enable more students to pursue degrees through online learning.

Considerable distance learning has been happening at Kenya’s major institutions such as the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, opening up opportunities for students taking diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

President Uhuru Kenyatta wanted the university to be up and running by December 2014, in an effort to expand enrolment through distance and e-learning.

The Open University, which the government hopes will help to ease a backlog of at least 40,000 would-be students, has been in the works since 2010, delaying Kenya's achievement of a stable, effective, affordable and accessible higher education system.

The country currently has at least 40 universities, but a surging number of students seeking higher education has exceeded the capacity of existing facilities – especially in the seven public universities – locking out thousands of potential undergraduates.

The new institution, Kaimenyi said, would enable students to follow lectures online from remote areas, interact with lecturers, submit assignments and check grades. Lecturers will be able to upload course materials online, post assignments and generate discussions via blogs.

Attracting investment

“We will use private investors since what we are able to raise from our coffers is too little,” said Kaimenyi.

Kenya is attracting a growing number of investors, foreign and domestic.

In June the country sold US$2 billion though a sovereign bond that was oversubscribed four times, highlighting growing investor confidence that Kenya is hoping to ride on to attract private investors into key sectors like education.

“It’s clear the government can no longer rely on taxpayers’ money to fund education. It has to seek private capital,” said Mwangi Wachira, an economist in Nairobi. “This is the way to go. The number of students seeking higher education is overwhelming and can’t be met through state funding.”

If Kenya succeeds in drawing private funds to set up the e-learning institution, it will be the second of such a magnitude in East Africa. The Open University of Tanzania, currently the only stand-alone distance learning university in the region, was established in 1992 and offers undergraduate and postgraduate studies in a wide range of disciplines.

This will be the latest in a string of education projects that the Kenyan government has lined up for funding by private investors, as it grapples with funding shortfalls due to rising expenditure demands.

Earlier this year, the Treasury allowed the universities of Kenyatta and Moi to engage private investors in expanding facilities, a signal that it was planning to let go of the burden of funding the seven public universities.

The scheme is expected to be extended to other interested public universities and it is part of a wider public-private partnerships plan that the government is riding on to raise at least US$29 billion in private funds over the next 10 years.

According to Kenya’s Economic Survey 2014, subsidies to public universities grew by 6% to reach US$624 million – up from US$588 million in 2012. Comparatively, admissions to state universities rose by 41%, from 195,428 in 2012 to 276,349 by the end of last year.

This is the gap the government is seeking to plug by tapping private funds in building higher education infrastructure.

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 current fiscal year, which kicked off 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. Kenya also hopes to double the number of universities of technology from the current four, to ensure that Kenya’s edge in ICT competitiveness and innovation is honed.