Falling student numbers – A shift in the HE landscape

Private investors and the Kenyan government are staring at millions of dollars in losses as several universities record falling student numbers, leaving universities with significant underutilised capacity.

Survey data released by the country’s Ministry of Education recently indicate that a majority of universities are struggling to attract students to take up some courses under the state-funded regular programme. To make matters worse, all the students previously enrolling for the lucrative self-sponsored courses are now being absorbed under the regular programme.

Since last year, the number of successful candidates graduating from secondary schools has fallen substantially after the government tightened examination rules to weed out thousands of cheaters who had over the years taken advantage of a sloppy monitoring system.

In terms of a government directive issued at the beginning of this year, public universities are to directly absorb all secondary school leavers who score a mean grade of C+ and above. Those below the cut-off will no longer be allowed to enrol for degrees. This is a departure from the past when they had the option of entering universities as privately-funded students.

The state, through the sector regulator the Commission for University Education, also barred universities from offering bridging courses, often taken by students who lacked sufficiently high grades to qualify for degree courses.

The changes have significantly drained universities of potential students, raising questions over the viability of costly expansion projects embraced by several higher education institutions over the past few years.

Statistics show that slightly fewer than 70,000 students qualified to join universities this year after attaining the requisite grades in the 2017 secondary examinations. Previously, at least half of these students were joining universities under the self-sponsored programmes while an equal number would be enrolled for regular courses. The number of those joining public universities is at least 18,000 lower than in 2017.

Of the qualified candidates, only 62,851 have expressed an interest in joining universities this year, which suggests that over 7,000 students have opted not to enrol in any of the available courses.

Data released recently by the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) – the body that places qualified students in universities – show that universities had at least 132,686 slots available in 2018.

According to the data, one private university that had declared capacity for 50 students failed to attract a single one; another institution, which expressed interest in admitting at least 400 students, only received eight applicants; one of the newly-established constituent colleges, formed under the older public universities, attracted only four students in total; and a total of 14 of the universities vying for the available students attracted under 50 students.

Educationists are justifiably concerned about the sustainability of Kenya’s higher education system and predict it is set for a major restructuring.

“Many universities face a bleak future because they cannot attract students and may not survive if the trend continues. Even those that do survive will have to scrap several courses that have turned out to be unpopular and irrelevant,” said David Aduda, a Nairobi-based educationist.

“What is emerging is that university education was built on quick sand. The exponential growth witnessed in the past 20 years was a mirage. It was not based on fundamentals. Now the chips are falling in place and the reality is that the country may not require so many universities after all,” he wrote in a blog in the leading Daily Nation newspaper.

The situation was not entirely unforeseen. Recently, as reported by University World News, government asked for a policy review that will see the rationalisation of institutions. In terms of the review, Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed directed the commission to justify the existence of the 74 universities in the country and asked all universities to defend their academic programmes and provide evidence of staffing levels.

“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 sub-sector. This may be a painful, but inevitable, process for the growth and development of the sub-sector,” said Mohamed in March.

“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 data from the KUCCPS paints a dire picture in respect of course choices. There is growing disinterest in skills that were previously identified as key drivers of the county’s economic agenda. In most of the universities, courses related to agriculture, horticulture, food science and technology and environmental studies received the lowest number of applicants. There was also a general neglect of courses in social sciences.

The changing dynamics in the higher education sector is beginning to raise questions over the millions of dollars being pumped into universities annually.

For the coming financial year which begins in July, 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, raising hopes of increased funding in the coming years.

However, the amount is US$300 million lower than the amount the universities requested, according to budget documents released by the government. Funding is projected to rise to US$1.3 billion by 2020. Treasury, which funds a huge part of the public universities' budgets, has over the years either cut allocations or failed to meet institutions’ needs.

Analysts believe that the declining student numbers will discourage investors who were previously falling over each other for opportunities in the sector. Kenya is seeking over US$200 million from foreign and local private investors to help build hostels in three public universities this year. The Treasury has called for potential bidders to present proposals to add 30,000 extra bed spaces across three of the country’s institutions: South Eastern Kenya University, Embu University College and Moi University.

For now, only time will tell the direction the country’s higher education sector will take.