Private universities struggle to make ends meet

Even after the Kenyan government last year permitted the enrolment of state-sponsored students in private universities, many of these institutions continue to grapple with financial deficits as a result of low student numbers, poorly planned and rapid expansion, as well as weak financial and management accounting systems.

The latest casualty is Kenya Methodist University, or KEMU, which owes lecturers, banks, suppliers and the government over US$30 million. As a result, the institution could see its properties attached. Lecturers are threatening to withdraw services over unpaid dues.

The financial crisis facing the institution has raised concerns over the fate of more than 1,100 government-sponsored students who were enrolled in the university last year.

Documents seen by University World News indicate that the church-owned institution owes suppliers and part-time lecturers close to US$17 million, a situation that has led to a number of suppliers filing cases in court in an attempt to recover their money, while others have written to the Commission for University Education, asking it to intervene on their behalf.

Staff unhappiness

Some part-time lecturers have also quit teaching at the institution, which is based in the Methodist Church-dominated Meru County of Central Kenya region, over non-payment of dues. The failure to pay the part-timers has also led to confrontations with the university management, with the tutors at times withholding student exam results in protest.

The university also owes the Kenya Revenue Authority US$4 million in unpaid taxes and Pay As You Earn – known as PAYE – statutory deductions from employees. There are also debts to various banks estimated at over US$10 million that the university has used to finance expansion in various major urban centres across Kenya.

In May KEMU shut three campuses, in the Central, Western and Rift Valley regions. Approximately 150 employees were sent home in what recently-fired vice-chancellor Henry Kiriamiti called “restructuring meant to enhance competitiveness”.

Kiriamiti is the third vice-chancellor to be axed from the institution since its establishment in 1997. Others include founding vice-chancellor Mutuma Mugambi and his successor Alfred Mutema.

Sources within the institution attribute the high turnover of vice-chancellors to differences between the senate, council and sponsor.

Power struggles

“The problem here is always a sort of power struggle between the church who are our sponsors on one hand, and the senate and management board on the other,” said a senior employee who requested anonymity.

“The church feels like it should have a say in every decision made which often conflicts with the position taken by the senate,” added the source.

Commission for University Education or CUE Chairman Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha was recently quoted in local media saying that the commission had picked a team to investigate the financial and management issues plaguing KEMU.

The university is the not the first in Kenya to experience cash-flow problems with one – the International University of Professional Studies, formerly Inoorero University – having gone under three years ago.

The institution sold off its main campus building in Nairobi’s upmarket Parklands for US$2.8 million to cover debts owed to local banks before going under.

Rapid expansion

Rapid expansion of the higher education sector over the past 10 years, with nearly 75 registered universities competing for students drawn from a population of 45 million citizens, is one of the reasons cited for the fate of some of the institutions.

Kenya has a total of 35 chartered public universities and constituent colleges, eight private chartered universities, 10 accredited private universities and 18 others listed as private university constituent colleges, including those with Letters of Interim Authority, according to the CUE.

Church-sponsored universities seem to be worst hit by stiff competition in the sector. The institutions have had to offer more diploma than degree programmes while relying heavily on adult, weekend and evening learners to stay afloat.

Small student populations

Many have student populations under 3,000 students, compared to public universities such as Kenyatta University, which boasts over 72,000 students.

Others that appear to be struggling include one of the oldest church-owned universities: the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and established in 1989. In June, it shut all satellite campuses, citing low enrolments.

Other institutions which are struggling include the Presbyterian University of East Africa of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, and St Paul’s University allied to the Anglican Church in Kenya, both of which have had to depend on their parent churches for survival.

Notable exceptions to the 'strugglers' are Catholic Church-linked universities Strathmore University in Nairobi, which is among the most elite private institutions in Kenya, and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, which attracts learners from across the region.