Spike in university enrolment brings new challenges

Kenya’s total university student enrolment rose 22.8% last year, marked by increased female enrolment and driven by massive infrastructure development, the introduction of new courses and the opening of more satellite campuses.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s data custodian, enrolment shot up from 361,379 to 443,783 during the year, creating a new layer of challenges for universities that will now have to seek new funds to expand facilities to cope with the surge.

The government has set aside US$646 million in state funding for the 2016-17 financial year which begins in July – up from the current US$624 million and representing an increase of just 3%.

The allocation, which has been termed “inadequate” by university administrators, is expected to further compromise the expansion of public university facilities, which has lagged behind growth in student numbers over many years.

Women on the rise

Female student enrolment has grown much faster than that of males as the country continues to grapple with a demographic shift that is seeing more women take up places in employment and learning institutions.

According to the recently released Economic Survey 2016 – the annual statistical bulletin documenting all government data – the number of female students rose 24.9% in the review period, up from 147,412 to 184,164. This is compared with an increase in male student enrolment of 21.3% (up to a total of 259,618) in the same period.

“Kenya is experiencing a game-changing demographic shift, with the number of women enrolled in universities rising much faster than that of men, a departure from the trend five years ago,” said Nairobi-based lecturer Festus Kimani.

Public universities were the biggest contributors to the sharp growth in overall enrolment, despite the lower increase in institutions’ finances. During the year, enrolment at public universities increased by 25.4% from 289,733 to 363,334 with female enrolment rising by 26.3% compared to male enrolment at 24.8%.

Enrolment in private universities climbed 12.3% from 71,646 to 80,448.

The rise in the number of students seeking places will 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 sources of money and improve loan recovery to meet growing demand. Enrolment is expected to rise by at least 20,000 students this year on the back of improved grades in the 2015 secondary examinations.

Growth versus quality

Experts have raised the possibility of quality declining, as universities have focused on growing student numbers while doing little to raise graduates’ skills levels.

In its latest assessment of Kenya’s economic prospects, the World Bank said that despite the rapid expansion of Kenyan higher education over the past two decades, universities have failed to produce employable graduates and there is a shrinking supply of skilled labour.

The bank faults universities for a focus on revenue generation and weak quality assurance mechanisms.

“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.

Late last year the Commission for University Education, the higher education regulator, launched a massive audit of all public universities to root out sub-standard campuses and institutions.

As a result of the audit, the number of approved private university degree programmes declined by 8% from 362 to 333. The number of universities with Letters of Interim Authority increased from 11 to 13 as the commission tightened its noose.

Growth across most of the post-school sector

Government data shows 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.

Enrolment in technical and vocational educational training institutions increased marginally from 148,009 to 148,142 last year. Student enrolment in national polytechnics and technical universities grew by 15.1% from 20,495 to 23,583.

During the review period, enrolment at institutes of technology declined to 15,468 from 21,602 while enrolment in youth polytechnics increased by about 3% to 73,695 in 2014 compared to an increase of 6.7% the previous year.

According to the survey, this increase was mainly attributed to the continued government subsidy on tuition fees for the youth polytechnics and improvement in the infrastructure of existing polytechnics.