Better school results pile pressure on university places

Kenyan universities face a heavy burden this year as they prepare to enrol the highest ever number of students to qualify for university, following improved performance in the 2015 school-leaving examinations. The proportion of candidates who attained the minimum university pass mark of C+ rose by 16,049 to 165,766 candidates, or 32.3% of those graded.

In the 2014 secondary school exams, 149,717 candidates attained the pass score and 67,790 of them were admitted to public universities last September under the government-funded ‘regular’ programme. Universities also admit privately sponsored, fee-paying students.

With many public universities squeezed for space, they might be forced to raise the cut-off mark, locking out thousands of qualified candidates who will have to seek places in private universities and colleges.

Expansion strains

Expansion of public universities has lagged behind rapidly growing student numbers, due to inadequate state funding for infrastructure and additional staff, over many years.

In the coming financial year, public universities will receive US$646 million in state funding, up from a current US$624 million – a measly 3.5% adjustment, considerably below inflation.

“We are at a crossroads. More students are attaining the pass mark to universities but we can only admit a limited number. Public universities can no longer keep up with the numbers, especially as government subsidies slump,” said a public university principal who did not want to be named.

The rise in the number of students seeking places will also pile pressure on the Higher Education Loans Board or HELB – the agency that disburses loans to students on behalf of the government. It will have to seek new money, and jerk up loan recovery, to meet the new demand.

“The only way Kenya can grow the number of university students benefiting from government loans is to ensure past beneficiaries pay up,” said Business Daily, a Kenyan premium business title, in an editorial.

Transition problems

Independent educationists and government officials have raised concerns over faltering secondary-to-university transition levels. With fewer than half of the school-leavers who qualify for higher education joining universities, the rest are left to join tertiary or technical colleges and most of these bright young people fade out of the formal education system.

“We are facing a crisis of sorts. Only a third of the students who join Form One end up attaining university qualifications. This is worrying and brings up the need for us to rethink the curriculum and the education system,” said Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i.

“We have constituted an inter-agency committee to look into this and recommend changes which we will implement.”

Of the 517,530 candidates who sat for the 2015 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, only 14,254 students or 2.7% scored the top grades of A and A-, down from the previous year’s 14,841. This, Matiang’i said, indicated that overall performance might be poorer.

State data indicate that the number of both public and private universities has grown to 68 – up from 58 in 2011. There are 22 public chartered universities including three technical universities and nine public university constituent colleges; the rest are private institutions. Total student enrolment stands at around 470,000.

The declining transition level has added new challenges to Kenya’s higher education system. Current challenges include inadequate capacity, a mismatch between skills acquired and the demands of industry, gender imbalances, rigid admissions criteria and limited opportunities for credit transfer.