University branch campuses in Kenya to close

On 19 January 2016, in an unprecedented demonstration of clout, the Kenya Commission for University Education, or CUE, ordered Kisii University, a state institution, to close 10 of its 13 branch campuses, and relocate the 15,000 students affected to the main campus. This move brings to 20 the number of campuses ordered closed by the authorities.

These actions are the culmination of concerted efforts by regulatory authorities to recalibrate university growth, from an array of low-quality, demand-absorbing campuses back to a traditional system of specialised, high-quality campuses.

It is also a response to stakeholder concerns over the decline in quality, as a result of the commercialisation of the university sector.

The existence of campus networks in major universities has a long history. However, its surge in Kenya in the last decade has been explosive.

Kenya’s university landscape, especially the public sector, is now a collection of campuses strewn all over the country and competing for the same student clientele.

Whereas a decade ago the campus model was regarded as the panacea to the challenges of university demand and revenue diversification in the neo-liberal era, the model is now viewed with suspicion. It epitomises the worst tendencies of university growth catalysed by both social demand and commercialisation, in the context of weak regulatory authorities.

Impetus for campus growth

Given the rapid growth of branch campuses in the public sector in the last decade, it is important to highlight budgetary constraints, access and equity as the key factors motivating this development.

Of the main drivers of the multi-campus systems in Kenya’s state universities, none ranks higher than institutional revenue diversification. Acute state revenue constraints beginning in the late 1990s, and the subsequent reduction of state funding of universities, have forced the institutions to seek additional revenues from the marketplace.

Universities have adopted a low-cost revenue enhancement model around inexpensive branch campuses targeting self-sponsored students – high school graduates without government scholarships – and working adults.

Most of these campuses are in small rural towns and offer easy-to-mount courses in humanities, education and business, taught by poorly qualified part-time faculty. The target students pay market-based tuition charges and fees, which contributes a large percentage of the universities’ additional revenues.

Since the campuses are inexpensive to establish and generate high financial returns, universities have a strong incentive to establish numerous branch campuses.

Although the number of universities in Kenya has grown from one public university to the current 43 accredited universities – 33 public and 10 private – the challenge of access remains, as the current enrolment of around 324,000 represents only 30% of the eligible population.

The number of students graduating from high school far exceeds the available number of university places, while the number of working adults seeking university education grows.

University authorities have viewed leasing facilities for the establishment of campuses as the most practical approach to expand access in the context of reduced state subventions for construction of capital facilities at the main campuses.

Most public and private universities are located in major metropolitan areas and in rich agricultural regions of central and western Kenya, leaving large swaths of the country without universities. These disadvantaged areas also experience greater levels of poverty.

National educational authorities have, therefore, viewed low-cost campuses in marginal areas as a solution to the twin challenges of equity of access and economic disadvantage. It is not surprising that many campuses have been established in the low-income coastal, eastern and north-eastern regions of the country.

These social goals have been the reason why regulatory authorities have overlooked the pitfalls of a university system characterised by low-quality branch campuses. The campuses have been a double-edged sword, providing access and equity while simultaneously compromising quality and equity.

Quality and equity challenge

Questionable educational quality in branch campuses is the utmost concern expressed by stakeholders. From academic facilities to academic staff, many branch campuses offer a grim contrast to the main campuses of the universities.

In most centres, branch campuses share buildings with business establishments like pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, brothels and bus terminals. They lack libraries, internet facilities, student services and recreational amenities.

Other than a full-time campus director, the academic staff consists of adjunct faculty who hold masters degrees, sometimes of dubious credibility. Rarely are academic conferences, seminars and research symposiums hosted in the campuses.

Not only does this environment impede excellent teaching and learning, but it also perpetuates teaching-research divorce, even in premier national universities. Surprisingly, most of these campuses purport to offer research-oriented masters degrees.

All branch campuses exhibit a common characteristic: a restrictive academic narrowness.

Commercially oriented programmes dominate academic offerings, with business studies, economics and project management the most popular. Other dominant fields include education, humanities and social sciences. Engineering, the natural sciences and the medical sciences are rarely offered at the branch campuses.

Because branch campuses are peripheral appendages created to generate revenue and absorb demand, central university administrators are reluctant to offer programmes that could evolve into potential competitors to the main campuses for government-sponsored student numbers and state financial resources.

In as much as campuses have enhanced access, they also reveal the dark side of the intersection between social class membership and university access in Kenya.

Rural campuses largely attract self-sponsored students who, as a result of their lower socio-economic status, could not perform well enough in high school examinations to secure competitive government scholarships.

With students from more privileged backgrounds taking the larger share of government scholarships and, therefore, places in the well-resourced main university campuses, the branch model of university development has contributed to the bifurcation of state universities: students from more privileged backgrounds dominate the well-resourced main campuses, while those from underprivileged classes are over-represented in branch campuses.

Branch campuses, therefore, contribute to the failure to address issues of substantive equity in higher education.

Recalibrating the branch campus model

The Kenyan multi-branch campus model of higher education is there to stay, granted its benefits in the commercialised higher education climate.

While ensuring that campus resources meet minimum acceptable standards, as CUE is currently doing, is an appropriate short-term measure, the long-term solution lies in reconfiguring the university campus system.

The state needs to support the development of branch campuses that not only provide access, but also address the socio-economic and cultural problems in the regions where they are located.

This will promote the hiring of qualified faculty, diverse academic programmes congruent with local challenges, engagement in research and scholarship, and the mentoring of graduate students.

Granting such campuses administrative autonomy in certain areas of finance and academic programming will enhance decision-making on critical issues. Elements of this model of branch organisation are already evident in the organisational model of University of Nairobi colleges.

Ishmael I Munene is associate professor in the educational leadership department at Northern Arizona University in the United States. E-mail: This article was first published by International Higher Education, Number 86: Summer 2016, the newsletter of the Boston College Center for International Education in the United States.