Ongoing funding crises challenge universities’ mandates

The growth of higher education and its obligation to contribute towards sustainable development in some East African countries is hampered by a myriad challenges, with inadequate funding being one of the most significant. But there are some solutions, according to higher education experts.

Alongside growth is the need to ensure that the quality of education is adequate and universities are discharging their mandates, including research and the production of quality graduates who can meet market demands and innovate to contribute towards Africa’s development.

The contribution of universities and higher education to development has long been promoted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation which posits that higher education has provided ample proof of its viability over the centuries, and of its ability to change and to induce change and progress in society.

Last year, the United Nations adopted an ambitious development agenda – Agenda 2030 – that include the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which place an obligation on higher education institutions to play a role in sustainable development.

However, current research suggests that funding crises are affecting the quality of education, research and development for most public universities in Kenya and Uganda. In fact, Kenya’s Commission for University Education or CUE lists low funding levels in universities as the top challenge for higher education in the country.

Likewise, the Uganda National Council for Higher Education cautions the state and other stakeholders to address the problem of higher education funding before standards become severely compromised.

Rapid expansion

Kenya has the largest university education system in East Africa. It is also rapidly expanding. According to CUE, the number of public universities in the country rose from six in 2003 to 32 in 2014. In total, the country has 70 institutions, nine of which are constituent colleges of public universities and five of private universities. As a result of the increase in institutions, the number of university students also rose from 67,558 in 2003-04 to approximately 769,550 in 2015.

Uganda funds public universities to the tune of about UGX200 billion, which is equivalent to approximately US$58 million, constituting about 11% of the education budget. The proposed budget, according to the government white paper on higher education, is 20% of the education budget, leaving a funding gap of about 9%. The current funding deficit for public universities amounts to approximately US$50 million.

In Kenya, the government’s annual KES32.8 billion (US$324 million) funding allocation to public universities is also inadequate and its distribution is not equitable, leaving many institutions in crisis.

Early this year, learning was paralysed at East Africa’s best-ranked institution of higher education – Makerere University in Uganda – as students protested a new policy to increase tuition fees by 60%.

A similar situation prevails in Kenya where the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology or MMUST shut down earlier this month after students protested over tuition and examination fee increments.

“The university has increased examinations, library and ICT development fee charges without consulting students,” said Stephen Matheka, a student leader at MMUST. Matheka, who is expected to meet the university’s disciplinary committee for leading recent protests at the institution, told University World News that universities needed to value students as important stakeholders who should always be consulted in matters of governance at universities.

Defining ‘equal access’

The protests have sparked debate, not only in Kenya and Uganda, but globally as well, on what equal access to education really means and whether Africa will be able to meet SDG Goal 4, which seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

According to Vincent Ssembatya, the director of quality assurance at Makerere University, the university has managed, with limited resources, to participate in high impact research. He said that it was necessary to support this effort with investments in research infrastructure that could trigger similar efforts in other universities in the country and region.

What should be the source of these investments? And should African universities rely on donor funding to meet their needs? In an interview with University World News, Ssembatya said wealthy donors had focused in particular on research. Such funding was largely limited to Makerere University and, furthermore, to particular research areas.

“The funding is often limited in scope, to areas predefined by the donors with limited latitude to the national research agenda,” said Ssembatya. Such limitations did not allow for the growth of certain research areas in basic sciences as well as the humanities, he said.

Under these circumstances, what is the future for higher education funding in Kenya and Uganda? Last week, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Public Universities in Kenya said that public universities may be forced to increase fees by as much as 50% to enable universities to cover their financial deficits.

Ssembatya, who also represents the East African region on the governing council of the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, said that these streams of donor funding need to be supplemented with government funding to holistically address all needs in the economy.

Development partners

“Development partner funding would be more useful if it supported the setting up of research infrastructure and the development of research capacity in the form of increasing the number of PhD holders in the country,” said Ssembatya. Currently, Uganda has an active population of about 2,000 PhDs, far less than the goal of 8,000.

Ssembatya said increased funding to higher education would be a “game-changer” in the sector.

“A game changer in Uganda’s higher education is increased appropriation of funding to higher education to the level of 20% of the education budget,” he said.

He suggested that this should be coupled with targeted infrastructural investments with low interest loans or grants from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, or from sources such as the Export-Import Bank of China. Such funding, he said, could form long-term strategic partnerships that could translate into global benefits, including the meaningful inclusion of the African continent in sustainable development activities.

Differentiated funding formula

CEO of Kenya’s Commission for University Education David Some said public universities would save more money for infrastructure and research if the government applied a differentiated unit cost formula in its funding. He said that the historical basis for funding used in Kenya where the oldest institution – the University of Nairobi – got the lion’s share should be reviewed.

Some said the Kenya National Government Constituencies Development Funds meant for higher education should be centralised for disbursement at the Higher Education Loans Board.

“Access to quality education is the responsibility of the government; students should not pay fees,” he said.

Some, who is the former vice-chancellor of Kenya’s second largest university – Moi University – said that prudent management of funds at public universities would help address the crisis. He called for the selection of university vice-chancellors on the basis of management competencies and not on tribal lines, as is frequently the case in Kenya.