Funding crisis puts university quality at risk – Report

Kenyan universities are facing a fresh financial crisis following revelations contained in a recent national audit that they are operating at a deficit of over US$100 million, with serious consequences for education quality.

A wide-ranging report released last month by the industry regulator, the Commission for Higher Education or CUE, titled The State of University Education in Kenya, shows that the deficit is frustrating institutions’ efforts to take in more students, meet existing standards and expand staff and facilities.

The situation applies to both private and public institutions.

According to the report, private universities are worst hit owing to their operating beyond their means. The report also warns that public universities have been relatively lethargic in diversifying income sources.

The majority of public universities continue to rely on government funding to meet 50% of their budget needs, a situation which is exposing them to risk since the government has not been increasing capitation in tandem with funding demands, the report notes.

In the current fiscal year that kicked off in July, state universities were allocated US$674 million in government capitation, up from US$624 million in 2015, giving them greater financial headroom. But university administrators say this is a far cry from the more than US$1 billion they require annually to run their institutions effectively.

Inadequate research funds

The government also plans to fund research to the tune of more than US$30 million, up from US$24 million the previous year. However, the new report says Kenya is still far from raising adequate research funds.

Research is seen as crucial to Kenya’s long-term economic blueprint, Vision 2030, which plans to develop a middle-income economy within two decades.

Kenya is positioning itself as Africa’s next research hub, with several initiatives expected to generate hundreds of innovations. To boost science and technology in the coming three years, Kenya plans to design and establish a national science and technology parks master-plan, establish a national physical science laboratory and license 2,500 research projects.

As the report notes, though, institutions of higher learning are spending over 80% of their budgets on recurrent expenditure (largely salaries and wages) at the expense of capital projects, research and innovation.

“Universities are spending more resources than they receive from the various income streams. If this trend is not remedied, universities may fail to meet their obligations as mandated in law,” according to the report which was launched at last month’s CUE-coordinated 1st Biennial Conference on the State of Higher Education by Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i.

Rapid expansion

Student enrolment in both public and private universities in the country continues to expand and the education of these students is now jeopardised by an inability to provide competitive salaries to the emerging class of new lecturers, many of whom are seeking teaching opportunities outside Kenya.

According to a former vice-chancellor who sought anonymity owing to the fact that he is currently consulting for the government, it is becoming clear that universities in Kenya can no longer guarantee quality of learning.

“If the funding trend is not addressed, the [inadequate] quality of graduates coming from institutions can only get worse,” he said. “We saw this coming and we have been warning the government and individual institutions” over the years, he said.

A 2014 study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa showed that 51% of Kenya’s graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs, although the figure was even higher for other countries in the East African Community – Burundi (55%), Rwanda (52%), Tanzania (61%) and Uganda (63%).

The CUE report also warned that some students are not completing the required number of academic hours to graduate.

Speaking at the conference, CUE Chief Executive Officer Professor David Some said the regulator had discontinued 42 academic programmes at both public and private universities for being sub-standard while three others were being wound up.

“Universities, irrespective of the mode of delivery of learning, are required to observe contact hours, be it evening classes, weekend classes, school-based or distance learning,” he said.

Bias towards arts

The report also raised a red flag over a continuing bias across universities towards arts disciplines at the expense of science courses that are in higher demand in the labour market. About 80% of current students are enrolled in humanities and social sciences courses, leaving 20% pursuing engineering, medical and other science-related courses.

The same trend is seen in the teaching fraternity where the number of tutors taking science-related courses is growing at a much slower rate than those in the arts. Still, arts lecturers are experiencing larger class sizes and workloads. This situation is, in turn, driving up the number of part-time contract lecturers hired to teach arts students.