Policy review may prompt cuts to university numbers

Kenya is set to substantially reduce the number of existing universities in the coming years, in a bid to safeguard faltering quality of learning arising from the mushrooming of institutions.

The government has asked for a policy review that will see the rationalisation of the institutions in the sector to tame expansion and establishment of new universities and campuses. Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed told the Commission for University Education (CUE), the regulator, to justify the existence of the country’s 74 universities.

Further, the cabinet secretary wants all universities to defend their academic programmes and provide evidence of current staffing levels to support the same.

“In the recent past, the quality of university education in Kenya has been under scrutiny, attracting great public attention. The time has come for drastic and bold steps to be taken to revive the university education subsector. This may be a painful, but inevitable, process for the growth and development of the subsector,” she said while addressing university administrators in Nairobi last week.

“There have been complaints from the public, that are indicative of the failure of universities to provide a conducive learning environment for students to excel in their fields of study, produce graduates who have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies needed for the world of work; and drive the national development agenda, ” she said.

The move, which is the latest in a comprehensive institutional review of the sector, could mark the end for some of Kenya’s emerging institutions of higher learning, dealing a huge blow to investors who have pumped millions of dollars into the sector in the past decade.

In 2016, CUE ordered the closure of 13 campuses of three universities – Kisii, Kabarak and Laikipia – following recommendations by a special advisory committee set up by the then education cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i. The committee conducted on-site inspections and found that many satellite campuses were running too many programmes, some of which had not been accredited. In addition, the quality of learning and standards of physical facilities on the campuses were below par.

The government now seeks to have each university build on its niche and strive towards becoming a centre of excellence in a specific area. The government is also demanding meticulous financial management in all institutions in the wake of dwindling state resources. Late last year, the government asked universities to start publishing regular financial performance reports to boost transparency.

“It is time that universities review the utilisation of all funds to ensure that exploitation and wastage is minimized and that there are great returns and profits,” said Mohamed.

Over the past few years, government subsidies to public universities have been unable to match growth in student numbers. In the coming financial year which begins in July, the government plans to raise funding by 7% while enrolment over the past year has increased by over 20%.

The national treasury has allocated US$1.03 billion to the institutions of higher learning, up from US$961 million in the current fiscal year. This is the first time the allocation has crossed the billion dollar mark. However, the amount is US$300 million lower than the amount requested by the universities, budget documents released by the government last week show.

Facing a deficit, universities are likely to struggle. A 2016 report by CUE showed that the public universities are operating with at least US$100 million in budget deficits arising from poor financial management practices.

In a February 2017 assessment of public universities, the country’s auditor general listed 11 of the country’s institutions as being insolvent.

It is expected that the review on the optimum number of universities will help establish appropriate staffing levels in universities. Although the number of qualified lecturers has been growing, it lags far behind the student enrolment rate. This has meant that universities have recruited non-PhD holders. The University Academic Staff Union says there are at least 11,000 lecturers in public and private universities in Kenya. The number stood at 8,000 five years ago, meaning that only 3,000 lecturers have been added to the system during this period.

To drive up reforms and increase access, Kenya is in the process of adopting and introducing a public-private partnership framework for the higher education sector. This will see the government reach out to private entities to fund higher education and prioritise a revolving capital fund for lending to education entrepreneurs at a marginal interest. The government also plans to introduce an education bond and float sovereign bonds at the Nairobi Securities Exchange to support funding of the sector.