Crises over degree recognition, fee hike, student loans

When Amos Ngila, a second-year law student at Moi University in Kenya, phoned his father recently to update him on campus events, what he said was so shattering that his dad hung up. The news was that the law school had been closed down, there was an impending tuition fee increase and Ngila was yet to receive his student loan, more than a month into the semester.

“Nothing seems to be working. It's tragedy after tragedy for me,” said Ngila, the son of a peasant farmer from eastern Kenya who relies on the stipend from the Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB.

His tribulations highlight a series of crises building in Kenya’s higher education sector, which threaten to undermine the credibility of degrees and throw thousands of learners off campuses. The crises have exposed the soft under-belly of higher education, which continues to grapple with concerns of underfunding and poor quality.

Professional bodies flex muscles

In the first crisis, the Engineers Board of Kenya rubbished more than half of engineering degree courses being offered by universities, saying that they had not been approved.

The board said that only 29 out of 67 degree courses offered in public institutions were professionally accredited, in a stand-off that has created bad blood between it, universities and the higher education regulator, the Commission for University Education or CUE.

The ensuing stalemate has thrown into jeopardy the careers of thousands of students enrolled on disputed engineering courses. At least 1,500 new students have been selected to study engineering in the rejected universities this year, and their fate is now unknown.

The engineers board singled out, as the main culprits in the accreditation shortfall, the universities of Egerton, Eldoret, Kenyatta and Nairobi, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and the technical universities of Kenya and Mombasa.

“What we are seeing in this row is the rupture of a crisis which has been building over the years. Simply put, some of the courses universities are offering do not meet the minimum threshold of approval,” said Wachira Mwangi, an economics lecturer.

In a related case of a professional body flexing its muscles, the Council of Legal Education ordered the closure of Moi University’s law school – one of the country’s oldest law faculties, established in 1994.

The university management was asked to craft a transition plan for students to either exit law studies or transfer to institutions that are accredited.

The council, which also stopped two campuses affiliated to the University of Nairobi from admitting new law students, found holes in the capacity of the Moi law school, saying the physical facilities and teaching resources were inadequate to warrant accreditation. The university disputed the claim, saying it was well equipped to run law courses.

The Council of Legal Education has given Mt Kenya University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology provisional clearance to offer law courses, pending a review of their applications.

This order means that currently only three universities – Nairobi’s Parklands campus, Strathmore and Kenyatta – are allowed to offer law training. Moi and Nairobi are credited with having trained most of Kenya’s current crop of lawyers, magistrates and judges.

Fees increase

As law and engineering students grappled with accreditation shocks, others were focusing on news that students could face a tuition fee increase from next year.

Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi is pushing for uniform fees for both government-sponsored and self-sponsored students – a proposal that could trigger a major fee hike in the coming months.

Kaimenyi’s proposal could mean that state-sponsored students, who currently pay a measly US$300 annually in fees, could be charged as much as US$2,000 per year, which is the average fee forked out by self-sponsored students.

“There appears to be no compelling reason why the same course unit should attract a different fees structure," Kaimenyi told reporters late last month, with segregation on the basis of whether students are designated as government- or self-sponsored.

“Based on the tenets of the University Act 2012, councils should deliberate and propose to the University Funding Board how this long-standing, socially discriminatory practice can be resolved,” he added.

Strapped for cash because of declining public funding and a freeze on fees for state-funded students, 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 Commission for University Education says it is no longer financially sustainable to keep state-funded students on campuses in current economic conditions, with students charged an annual US$300 fee that has remained unchanged for 20 years.

“It makes sense for universities to enrol more self-sponsored students than regular ones as they are able to generate income from the former,” said Professor David Some, CEO of the commission.

The government has set up an agency, the University Fund, that is mandated to set fees for students. The fund is expected to kick-start a new ‘differentiated unit cost’ funding system that will see students pay fees based on the courses they are taking, with science students paying more than those studying arts.

Lecturers will draw salaries based on the courses they teach, with those specialising in arts earning less than those teaching courses such as engineering and medicine.

But any attempt to raise fees could be met with opposition from students.

Student loans problems

Students are already angry. At the end of last month, thousands from universities in the capital Nairobi held demonstrations in the streets over the delayed disbursement of HELB loans.

Inflation over the past year has averaged 6% in Kenya. This has lowered real incomes, pushing families to seek more student loans, which have not been forthcoming as the Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB, is stretched to the limit.

There is soaring demand for higher education, as more and more school-leavers qualify for university study. Growth in student numbers has not translated into an equal expansion of lecturers and learning facilities, leaving students clogging up institutions.

Latest government data shows 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.