Regulator audit finds universities in funding crisis

Kenyan universities are sinking into a fresh financial crisis, with revelations in an audit that they are operating at huge deficits, hurting the quality of learning. A report from sector regulator the Commission for University Education shows that institutions face a US$100 million budget gap. 

This is frustrating university efforts to take in more students, expand facilities and offer better quality education. It is also denying them access to more lecturers to cope with the rising demand for higher education.

The report released in late October also says private universities are the worst hit, and are operating beyond their means. The commission warns that public universities have been lethargic in diversifying sources of income, adding that most continue to rely on government funding to meet 50% of their budget needs.

Universities are spending more resources than they receive from various income streams, says The State of University Education in Kenya Report 2016 launched by Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i. “If this trend is not remedied then universities may not meet their obligations as mandated in law.”

The situation

Universities are exposed to funding risks because the government has not been increasing capitation in tandem with universities’ demand for funds, the report says.

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

The government plans to fund research to the tune of more than US$30 million, up from US$24 million the previous year. However, the report from the Commission for University Education or CUE says Kenya is still far from raising adequate budgets to fund research. 

Research is seen as crucial to the long-term economic blueprint Vision 2030, which plans to turn Kenya into a middle-income economy in two decades.

The country is positioning itself as Africa’s next research hub, with several initiatives expected to generate hundreds of innovations. To boost science and technology, Kenya plans to design and establish a National Science and Technology Park masterplan, create a national physical science laboratory and license 2,500 research projects.

Worrying funding trend

The report decries a growing trend for higher education institutions to spend more than 80% of their budgets on recurrent expenditure – largely salaries and wages – at the expense of capital projects, research and innovation.  

Kenya has been registering steadily rising enrolment in both public and private universities, which has now hit 430,798 students.

The audit says that as a result of the financial crisis, institutions have been unable to offer competitive salaries to the emerging class of new lecturers who are increasingly seeking teaching opportunities outside Kenya.  

“The verdict is now out that universities in Kenya can no longer guarantee quality of learning. If the funding trend is not addressed, the wanting quality of graduates coming from institutions can only get worse,” said a former vice-chancellor who did not want to be named as he is currently consulting for the government.

“We saw this coming and we have been warning the government and individual institutions.”

Learning problems 

The universities regulator warned that some students are not finishing the set academic hours before graduating.

CUE Chief Executive Officer Professor David Some said the agency discontinued 42 academic programmes at public and private universities for being substandard 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,” Some said.

The report also raised a red flag on imbalances across universities in terms of courses offered, with too few science, technology, engineering and maths courses that are in higher demand in the labour market.

About 80% of current students, the CUE report shows, are enrolled for humanities and social sciences. 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 that in the arts, meaning that science lecturers are taking on larger class sizes and workloads.

Lecturer qualifications

Kenyan universities have been on a recruitment drive, especially hiring scholars on part-time contracts to teach the growing number of students. But the quality of lecturers is lacking too.

The report says that while the minimum education requirement for a university lecturer under the law is at least a masters degree, the university sector has some 1,365 lecturers who hold only a bachelor degree – and worse still, another 656 are diploma holders.

Kenya has kicked off a series of reforms that will, among other things, set a higher qualifications threshold for the appointment of lecturers. In a directive to be implemented in the next five years, CUE says only PhD holders will be allowed to teach at universities.

Holders of masters degrees, no matter how many years of experience or number of publications, will only be able to be appointed as junior lecturers and tutorial fellows. Previously, universities had the leeway to appoint lecturers irrespective of whether or not they held a PhD.