After years of taxiing, higher education nears take-off

On the evening of 13 May 2010, I received an email from Karen MacGregor, then the co-editor of University World News. She was looking for a stringer who could file stories on Kenya’s higher education sector for her weekly international online newspaper.

Specifically, she wanted me to write a story on a new crisis that was then facing public universities in Kenya as the government sought to speed up the bottle-necked admissions system that forced students to wait for two years after school to enrol for a degree. While this was happening, wealthier students who could afford private higher education would move straight into universities and get a head-start in the job market.

I was working at the time for the Business Daily on their education beat, but I accepted the assignment from Karen. Nearly eight years later and with over 300 education-related articles under my name, I find that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Kenyan institutions are still grappling with many of the challenges they faced a decade ago. In the main, these relate to quality.

It was not until two years ago that universities kicked off the plan to end the admissions backlog – involving over 40,000 students – caused by prolonged institutional closures after the 1982 coup.

So, what have been the biggest developments in Kenya’s university education sector in the past 10 years and how has this played out in the country’s economic agenda? To uncover this, I went back to the archives, tracked trends and had conversations with past and current sector administrators.

Mixed bag

It revealed a mixed bag of fortunes, but whichever way you look at it, Kenya’s higher education sector is far from where it ought to be. It has defied the rules of logic and probability which dictate that when you knock on a door hard (and consistently), it will eventually open.

The enactment of the Universities Act 2012, which came into effect in 2013, was meant to open a floodgate of changes, and usher in a new dawn for the sector. Changes have been trickling in, but doubts remain about their effectiveness in delivering quality and equity in the sector. One of the effects of the Act is that public universities, which were previously governed by specific acts of parliament, have been brought under the same law as private institutions.

The Act, which was first published in 2009 but faced heated opposition, also established several new bodies and restructured existing ones to aid the management of higher education. Overall, it seems that Kenya may have to wait a little longer for the full spirit of the law to be felt.

What were the biggest misses?

Firstly, one of the biggest policy missteps was the decision to convert some tertiary and technical colleges into universities in a bid to meet the huge demand for university education. Over the years this has denied thousands of secondary school leavers an opportunity to pursue those technical qualifications, effectively starving the economy of crucial skills. While the government would later announce a ban on the upgrading of these institutions, the damage had already been done.

"It was wrong to convert major technical institutions into universities as they equally play a major role in our society. Not everybody should be a graduate. It is absolute nonsense and stupid. The craze for going for degrees is destroying the country," said Professor George Magoha, the former vice-chancellor at the University of Nairobi, Kenya’s second largest by student numbers.

The move also saw some universities collaborate with technical institutions and change the programmes they offer. The government then banned universities from offering diplomas and certificate courses as part of a raft of recommendations by a higher education taskforce, aimed at improving quality and streamlining the sector.

“There is need for the country to realise that we require manpower of various levels of expertise. We have to ensure that those who do not obtain grades for automatic admission to university can be absorbed in tertiary colleges and have the option of pursuing university education [in the future] if they so desire … The process of ensuring that those who pursue certificate and diploma courses can in future transfer the credits obtained in those … should be implemented consistently,” said Dr Collins Odote, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a regular commentator in Kenya’s media.

Financial crisis

Secondly, the sector is increasingly sinking into a financial crisis, with several institutions technically insolvent. It is estimated that public universities are operating at a deficit of over US$100 million, hurting the quality of learning. Lecturers staged a strike at the end of February to press for better pay, further worsening the state of play.

As was the case 10 years ago, a majority of public universities continue to rely on government funding to meet over 50% of their budgetary needs, a situation which is exposing them to financial risk since the government has not been increasing capitation in tandem with funding demands.

“University managers have been forced to secure and offer many of their services on credit. Almost all the public universities owe their suppliers and service providers,” said Constantine Wasonga, the secretary-general of the Universities Academic Staff Union. “Universities are currently struggling to pay net salaries. We are a sad lot as lecturers are being turned away from health facilities and being blacklisted by financial institutions for failing to meet their obligations,” he recently told a parliamentary committee.

For the past decade, the government has tripled the capitation to public universities. In 2009, universities were allocated US$290 million, compared to the US$1 billion allocated in the current fiscal year. But still, the growth dwarfs the surge in enrolment figures. According to the government's Economic Survey 2008, the number of students enrolled in public universities was 101,000. Currently, there are over 450,000 students enrolled in Kenyan universities, a fivefold increase over the past 10 years.

Thirdly, the government has over the decade sought ways to strengthen teaching in universities while reducing the surging lecturer-student ratio which currently stands at 1:100. In 2013, the government rolled out a plan for universities to produce at least 1,000 PhDs every year in order to produce the next generation of academics, alleviate the lecturer shortage and provide high-level skills. A year later, the government issued guidelines requiring that all university lecturers must hold PhDs. Effectively, those without PhDs are only to be hired as tutorial fellows, depriving them of their current positions. The directive is yet to be effected.


Despite these hiccups, the sector has posted some game-changing developments which are set to address some of the challenges.

First, the government has changed admission rules, with effect from this year, requiring public universities to absorb all secondary school leavers who score a mean grade of C+ and above in examinations. This has more than doubled the number of students pursuing government-sponsored education every year.

But this decision could also be a death knell for the self-sponsored programmes. Students with less than C+ -- who were previously free to seek self-sponsored degrees – will not be allowed into universities and will have to pursue higher education through alternative tertiary institutions. This, observers said, is a boon to the tertiary institutions which were affected by falling enrolments.

Secondly, the government has cleared legal and administrative hurdles to allow public universities to seek funds for expansion through public-private partnerships to help the institutions handle an expected surge in student numbers. Over US$300 million is expected to be pumped into public universities by private investors in the next two years. The universities will provide land for construction while investors develop the hostels and run them for 20 years to recoup investments. They will then hand them back to the institution, a model known as Build-Own-Transfer.

Thirdly, Kenya is preparing, after years of haggling, for one of the most transformative policy changes: the differentiated unit cost system, which will see funding to public universities based on student numbers and the nature of courses offered.

The plan, due to come into effect in July this year, was mooted more than 10 years ago and is intended to produce greater specialisation of offerings by institutions and encourage the emergence of centres of excellence aimed at producing specialised skills to drive Kenya’s industrialisation agenda. University students will also pay fees based on the courses they pursue.

Fourthly, the introduction of a national qualifications framework late last year, which creates a database of all academic records, is expected to substantially raise the quality of learning in the sector by curbing fake qualifications. It would appear that Kenya's higher education is still taxiing on the runaway, with definite signs of a near take-off.