Universities grow but skills pool shrinks – World Bank

Despite the rapid expansion of Kenyan higher education in the last two decades, universities have failed to produce employable graduates and there is a shrinking supply of skilled labour. In a key report on the country’s economic status, the World Bank faults universities for a focus on revenue generation and weak quality assurance mechanisms.

“Specifically, the system is weak on creating job-relevant technical skills and other skills valued by employers that include use of computers, solving complex problems and ability to learn new skills while on the job,” the report notes.

Kenya Country Economic Memorandum: From economic growth to jobs and shared prosperity, released on 10 March in Nairobi, explains that the rapid expansion of tertiary education has been accompanied by significant risks that have impacted negatively on the quality of learning.

Rapid expansion

Expansion has been achieved through upgrading diploma and technical colleges into universities, and launching ‘parallel’ programmes for full cost-paying students. Students in ‘regular’ courses are funded by the state.

Both public and private institutions have also established satellite campuses across the country where students pay tuition fees for part-time or distance learning. Most are low quality and do not have adequate facilities such as classrooms or libraries, or access to learning technologies or the internet.

While in 2000 there were six public universities with a total enrolment of 41,000 students, currently there are 23 fully-fledged public universities and 10 university colleges with a total enrolment of more than 400,000 students.

The number of private universities has increased from 13 universities in 2000 with a total enrolment of 8,200 to the current number of 37 private universities and colleges with a total enrolment of more than 80,000 students.

Considerable problems

According to John Randa, a senior economist in the World Bank’s macroeconomic and fiscal global practice and one of the report’s authors, higher education has been driven by demographic pressures and reforms undertaken in primary and secondary education.

“The current 8-4-4 education system – eight years of primary, four years of secondary and a minimum of four years at tertiary level – which was introduced in the 1980s, has failed to keep up with the fast-changing labour market and needs reform,” said Randa.

Commenting on the issue Ishmael Munene, an associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University in the US, said an inferior academic climate in most universities had contributed to a surge in plagiarism, fabricated references, impersonation in examinations and lecturers demanding money or sexual favours in exchange for passing grades.

Recently, the Commission for University Education revoked five PhD degrees awarded by the public Kisii University in western Kenya. According to Commission Chair Henry Thairu, the PhD students were admitted to the doctoral programme with sub-standard degrees.

Over the years, government funding of tertiary education has taken a nose-dive, forcing universities to compete for ‘parallel’ students who pay full-cost user fees for low quality degrees often taught by unqualified faculty.

“Part-time instructors drive most of the teaching in Kenya’s satellite campuses,” Munene told University World News in an interview in Nairobi.

Quantity versus quality of graduates

While growing the pool of university graduates is often viewed as good for a country’s productivity growth, the World Bank warns that this should not be taken for granted.

The report says the rates of return vary with the quality of skills imparted. Rather than the level of education or number of years of schooling, it is the quality of cognitive skills that determines individual earnings.

Although the number of graduates is rising rapidly in Kenya, the report says businesses are increasingly complaining about shortages of skills in the labour market.

“The country’s higher education system is failing to meet market needs, as it does not prepare labour market entrants with appropriate skills,” said Diariétou Gaye, World Bank country director for Kenya, when he launched the report.

While university expansion has increased access, the new multi-campus university systems have been too weak to create job-relevant technical skills.

Most technical diploma colleges that excelled in providing vocational job-ready skills have been elevated to universities providing low-cost degree courses in education and the social sciences and humanities. “Many students have left vocational schools in favour of general secondary education and the prospect of pursuing a tertiary degree,” says the World Bank.

Pulling back

Amid efforts to scale down unplanned expansion Dr Fred Matiang’i, cabinet secretary for education, on 7 March suspended setting up new satellite campuses and academic sites across the country.

Matiang'i also suspended borrowing by universities, many of which have been securing huge bank loans to buy buildings in towns to set up campuses. According to Matiang’i, the decision was taken to protect the integrity of higher education and stop the exploitation of students.

“We cannot allow this madness to continue in the education sector,” he said.

But while Matiang’i stressed the government’s commitment to improving higher education, much more action is needed than preventing new branch campuses.

Over and above the problem of unemployable graduates, Kenya’s higher education is skewed in favour of socio-economic groups with resources to buy higher educational services.

Despite massive expansion, Ishmael Munene points out, gender and regional imbalances and socio-economic status continue to shape the development of tertiary education in Kenya.

It is also of great concern that Kenya has the highest proportion of unemployed youth in East Africa. According to the World Bank report, 17.3% of youth in Kenya are jobless against 6% in Tanzania and Uganda.

A large segment of unemployed youth is urban-educated and they are demanding modern jobs. To improve quality and produce graduates who can get those jobs, the World Bank says, there is an urgent need for Kenya to rejuvenate its rickety universities and colleges.