Students unhappy over 30% fee hike

Kenya is set to increase fees for state-sponsored students in public universities by 30% from next year, following recommendations by the University Fund, the government agency mandated to set fees. Students have vowed to oppose the increase.

Justifying the increment – the product of the first fee review in 20 years – the fund said the increment is meant to help universities meet their financial needs as well as align the university charges with economic realities such as inflation.

Kenya's fees are highly subsidised for state-sponsored students, but all state-sponsored students joining public institutions will be expected to pay US$340 annually in tuition fees, up from the current US$265, in the plan that is expected to be rolled out in phases. The increase will not affect students already enrolled.

The increase has been opposed by students. However, the increased fees will earn public universities at least US$360 million annually which is expected to fund their operations and development expenditure. This will offer a major reprieve to cash-strapped universities.

The fees increment is part of a wider plan that will usher in the rollout of the new 'differentiated unit cost', or DUC, funding system that will see students pay fees based on the courses they are undertaking, with science students paying more than those studying arts courses. Lecturers will also draw salaries based on the courses they teach, with those specialising in arts earning less than those teaching courses such as engineering and medicine.

Independent commentators and observers have criticised the fee hike, saying it goes against the spirit of increasing access to education across all levels. In what is seen as a contradiction in policies, the government also plans to waive tuition fees for all learners in secondary schools from next year. Primary school education is already free in Kenya.

“The worst thing we can do is to discriminate against those from poor backgrounds from achieving their dreams of higher education. Any plans to increase fees should ensure that the poor are not locked out of pursuing higher education. It also doesn’t make sense to have free primary and secondary education, yet the students cannot complete higher education,” said the Business Daily, Kenya’s leading business title in a recent editorial.

However, university leaders argue that increasing student fees is the only option left to them to ensure their viability after their frequent pleas for higher allocations from government have fallen on deaf ears.

For their part, students say they will oppose the increase.

“We will oppose the planned raise at all costs,” said a university student leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If the government is looking at increasing access, why then should the fees in universities go up,” he said.

The government faced massive opposition from students when it last tried to increase fees in 1995. Since then, public universities have been struggling to meet their budgetary needs, according to administrators in the institutions, at the same time as student admissions have increased.

Strapped for cash because of declining public funding and the freeze on fees for state-funded students, universities introduced 'parallel' or 'module one' courses charging full fees. This resulted in significant disparities in fees paid by state-funded versus self-funded students.

'Module two' or self-funded students pay at least US$705 in fees per semester, a figure university administrators reckon is a true reflection of the cost of learning. State-sponsored students are now in a minority as most students take self-sponsored courses.

Kenya’s inflation for this year averaged around 6.5%. This has lowered real incomes, pushing families to seek more student loans, which have not been forthcoming as the Higher Education Loans Board is stretched to the limit.

Treasury, which funds a huge part of universities' budgets, has over the years either cut allocations or failed to meet institutions’ needs. For example, the government has allocated US$982 million to the country’s public universities for the current financial year. University administrators have however said the allocation is over US$200 million lower than the amount they had requested for the period.