State cuts university funding by 6% as enrolment soars

Kenya’s public universities will have to tighten their belts following a decision by the Treasury to cut funding by 6% in the coming financial year, which begins in July – despite 28% expansion in student numbers.

While budget proposals released in January showed the East African country was planning to up financing to universities by 10% in what would have been the biggest funding rise in three years, final spending plans released last week show subsidies will be capped at US$588 million, down from US$627.2 million in the current fiscal year.

But the Higher Education Loans Board or HELB, the agency that disburses loans to students on behalf of the government, will see its allocation jump by 33% – from a current US$63 million to US$83 million. Still, the allocation to HELB is US$11 million shy of what the agency requested.

Rapid student expansion

The new funding plans introduce a complex situation for the higher education sector, following revelations that student numbers increased by 28% last year – and the same student expansion momentum is expected this year.

Data released two weeks ago by the government show that public and private universities had 443,783 students last year, up from 361,379 in 2013. Enrolment numbers have more than doubled since 2012 when there were 218,628 students.

In the current fiscal year 2014-15, HELB intends to fund 215,739 students at a total budget of US$95.5 million. This is expected to rise to 307,984 students at a total cost of US$141.3 million in the 2015-16 financial year.

The allocation and higher education massification mean that public universities and HELB will have to urgently increase alternative sources of funds to meet growing expenditure.

The rise in student numbers has been buoyed by an increase in the number of public and private universities, which grew from 58 in 2011 to 68 now – comprising 22 public chartered universities including three technical universities, nine public university constituent colleges, 17 private chartered universities, 12 universities operating with letters of interim authority, five private university constituent colleges and two registered private universities.

The high enrolment numbers have been attributed partly to an increase in the number of approved courses.

According to the government’s Economic Survey 2015, the number of degree courses approved by the Commission for University Education has more than doubled over the past three years to hit 333 in 2014, from 160 in 2012.

Strapped for cash

The budget cut comes at a time when the government is mulling over setting up a universities funding board that will be tasked with coming up with transparent and fair criteria for allocating money to higher education institutions.

The agency will be expected to structure the funding needs for public universities to guide the government in its budget decisions while at the same time looking at the adequacy of current tuition fees.

Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi said: “The government recognises the need to scale up expenditure to ensure better access to education as well as better implementation of programmes-projects.

“However, the resource envelope still remains constrained when measured as a share of overall government budget, and as a proportion of gross domestic product, and in per capita terms.”

Undermining higher education mega plans

The inability of the government to match student numbers with funding is expected to frustrate mega plans to expand higher education.

For instance, Kenya is planning to set up at least 20 new public universities as it seeks to devolve higher education to counties that currently have none.

The proposal is contained in a bill currently being debated in the senate and is part of a wider strategy that is meant to make Kenya’s 47 counties self-sustaining under a devolved system of government that kicked off in 2013.

The Universities Bill 2014 wants to guarantee a public university in each of the counties as a centre of research for the region. Institutions are expected to focus on research that tackles the needs of the national and county governments, and is locally relevant.

“The way things are going, it will be hard to implement any substantial projects as the funding levels are relatively low compared to the projects we would want to do,” said a member of parliament who did not want to be named.