Technology sweeping universities opens opportunities

A technology wave is sweeping Kenyan higher education, changing the ways universities are run. Since mid-February more higher education institutions and groups supporting the sector have tapped technology to ease operations and open new competitive frontiers.

Almost all Kenyan universities have set up student portals to manage registration and track the payment of fees.

Until two years ago, for example, new students at the University of Nairobi – the second biggest by student numbers – had to queue to register for courses and secure accommodation on campus. Today, they do the same from the comfort of mobile phones and laptops.

The Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB, has signed up several leading banks to start disbursing funds to students using pre-paid electronic cards that will allow tracking of borrowers’ future bank transactions.

Student loan and payments cards

This month HELB signed a smart card partnership with Kenya’s biggest lender, KCB, ahead of the June 2015 deadline that the loans agency has set for all universities to have issued students with the smart cards.

The plan is for the card, which is Near Field Communication-enabled, to be a mobile wallet that allows students to pay tuition fees and other expenses like meals and accommodation. It will also be used as a photo card for student identification at three leading institutions, including Egerton University.

“The card is part of our ongoing automation project meant to bring efficiency in the running of HELB, maximise loan recovery and reduce the stock of non-performing loans,” said HELB Chief Executive Officer Charles Ringera.

“The automated scheme will provide a smoother procedure in regard to the student tuition fees payment process, which affects all HELB loan beneficiaries, and [make] it easier to expand loan services to other colleges,” he said at the launch of the automated system in Nairobi.

“The card will have the ability to interface with HELB, the universities’ systems and the approved banks.”

Earlier this month, African lender United Bank for Africa launched a prepaid student card in conjunction with Salsy Innovate, a Kenyan IT firm. Dubbed Y-Card, it boasts an integrated system that enables students to load and withdraw cash from Visa branded ATMs, and make payments within the university and at Visa branded retail outlets.

HELB, in partnership with Family Bank and the London-based payments firm sQuid, has also worked out the technology at the Kenya Methodist University using a plastic sQuid campus card.

The automated system, HELB said, will also help to build financial profiles of HELB loan beneficiaries, including their repayment records, enabling the board to better track borrowers’ transactions in future.

“Students from institutions of higher learning will now be able to access their money in a more secure and seamless manner and this is part of my ministry’s effort to digitise all monetary avenues and curb corruption,” said Education Ministry Cabinet Secretary Professor Jacob Kaimenyi.

A regional trend

Kenyan universities have been ahead of their East African counterparts in adopting information and communication technologies, or ICTs, in higher education.

A recent survey by CPS International, sponsored by the Pan African Education Trust, found East African universities to be increasingly embracing ICT in teaching and learning and to be comparing favourably with international universities in the use of technology.

Kenyan universities, the survey showed, are leading the pack in the use and accessibility of ICT in education in East Africa, while Burundi is lagging behind. Uganda came in second, Tanzania third and Rwanda fourth. The five countries make up the East African Community.

As such, ICT has opened up East African universities to sharing and accessing academic and research materials and corporate information.

This shift is coming at a time when card payments are increasingly gaining traction in Kenya due to convenience, cost efficiency and security. Data released this month by the Central Bank of Kenya indicate that card payments hit US$13.4 billion in 2014.