Drop in student numbers rattles private universities

A massive drop in the number of secondary school leavers qualifying for entry into universities in 2017 means that Kenyan private universities may have to turn to fee-paying foreign students or offer more diploma courses to keep themselves afloat.

In the past, private universities have absorbed large numbers of students unable to gain admission into public institutions owing to high demand for university places.

However, only 88,000 students out of a total of 577,000 managed to gain university entry-level passes in last November’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education or KCSE, a drop of about 60,000 students on last year’s total of around 150,000.

Kenya has a total of 30 chartered public universities with a combined capacity to accommodate 97,500 students.

According to the government, local public universities have the capacity to absorb all 88,000 students who managed the university entry threshold score of ‘C+’ and above in the form four exams, implying that there would be very few learners left for the private institutions to admit. However, students choosing private institutions remain eligible for government loans.

“We have seen a significant drop in students who attained university entry marks in 2016 which means that public universities will this year be able to comfortably absorb all those who have qualified”, said Education, Science and Technology Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i at the release of the results on 29 December.

Curbing cheating

According to the minister, the low number of eligible students in 2016 was the result of the stringent administration of exams which curbed cheating, as well as the elimination of malpractices in the marking of papers and awarding of grades.

The minister has also ruled out the option of lowering the requisite university admission mark from C+ to C, saying this would compromise quality.

The outcome of the new approach has rattled the entire education sector. Last year, private institutions were allocated around 12,000 government-sponsored students by central placement body, the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, due to a shortage of places in public universities. It was one of the best years for the privately owned universities.

Experts now say that in the wake of the drop in entry-level passes, private institutions will have to admit more students into diploma and certificate courses, or aggressively enrol learners from across the borders in order to survive.

This would place them somewhere close to the middle-level tertiary colleges that admit students with a mean score of ‘C’ (plain) for diploma courses – something institutions of higher learning have done in the past to fill their capacities.

Diploma courses

According to National Association of Private Universities Chairman Simon Gicharu, with government having ruled out the possibility of lowering entry points for degree programmes, private universities had no choice but to strengthen their diploma programmes.

“A good way of getting round this would be strengthening diploma courses and introducing science-based programmes like medicine and engineering”, he told the local media.

Indeed, few private universities in the country offer science or engineering-based training largely due to the high cost of setting up laboratories and workshops, making the courses the preserve of government-owned tertiary colleges.

According to Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s department of agri-business, affected institutions will have to “remodel” themselves in accordance with the anticipated student shortage.

“The universities have no choice but to remodel their businesses and resort to teaching diplomas, bridging and short courses to stay afloat,” he told University World News in a telephone interview.

Relatively expensive

Arguing against the feasibility of luring foreign students from the East African region, he said higher education in Kenya was relatively expensive compared to other countries in the region.

“Students with a ‘C’ could undertake diploma studies and later enrol for degree programmes and this is one way in which [private] universities could stay afloat,” he said.

But it is not only the privately owned universities that will suffer from the new developments. Major public institutions are also likely to feel the effects of losing the thousands of learners admitted each year for ‘Module II’ programmes – evening and weekend learning offered to self-sponsored students.

The Module II courses rake in thousands of dollars each year, helping universities stay afloat in the face of inadequate funding by the state and assisting the institutions to retain professors thanks to the extra income they earn by teaching evening and weekend classes, and who might otherwise seek greener pastures abroad.

In the meantime, debate over the perceived mass failure (85% of those tested failed to make university entry-level cut-off) has been heated, with the opposition and the powerful Kenya National Union of Teachers calling for an audit of the results.

Teacher unions have cited as problems the "abnormal" examinations results curve observed in the KCSE outcomes and the hurried manner in which the results were released, arguing that examination grades were not "standardised" and that grading failed to meet international standards.

According to Mbataru, the only factor that would lead to a re-assessment of the results was an indication that due diligence was not followed in marking, analysing, standardising and grading the scores.