Universities feel the brunt of a market-driven agenda

A quarter of a century ago, Uganda’s Makerere University embarked on an academic journey hitherto undreamt of in Sub-Saharan Africa: intensive marketisation of higher education.

After years of neglect dating from the 1970s during the era of Idi Amin dictatorship and the civil strife that followed, in 1994 Makerere seemed to have found the missing link for revitalising its academic programmes without relying so heavily on state treasury.

Dubbed by the World Bank as a quiet revolution, the Makerere model of financing university education was hailed as a surefire way of saving African universities from the brink of collapse.

“Makerere represents an impressive example of institutional reform that takes advantage of different expressions of market demand,” said Dr David Court, then a World Bank consultant on higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, in his 1999 study Financing Higher Education in Africa: Makerere, the quiet revolution.

The initiative gave a new lease of life to Makerere: in a period of five years the Harvard of Africa moved from a situation in which none of its students paid fees, to a scenario where over 70% paid fees and stopped depending heavily on government subsidies.

It is against this backdrop that public universities in East Africa, almost in their entirety, adopted this model – not just for the sake of meeting the initial objective of increasing the number of self-sponsored students, but for creating new undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses. Most of those new courses were regarded as market-driven and were intended to provide knowledge and skills that were thought to be in great demand in the job market or simply attractive to students.

Subsequently, single-subject studies such as tourism, events management, leisure and hospitality, public relations, project management, conflict resolution studies and small business management courses attained degree status and were offered to full-cost tuition-paying students.

According to Ishmael Munene, a professor of educational research, higher education and education leadership at Northern Arizona University in the United States, the idea of the entrepreneurial university was stretched to extremes in Kenya with the establishment of many constituent colleges, satellite campuses and learning sites.

However, while funds from privately-sponsored students were expected to increase faculty salaries and improve learning facilities and staff development, universities pursued commercial ventures that were only remotely related to academia’s core values.

“In total disregard of stated academic missions, public university central management veered towards raw commercial interests that included the establishment of business incubation centres, real estate development, funeral homes, hotels and conference centres,” said Munene.

Unfortunately, as academia in Kenya was pushed into the marketplace, ethnic considerations became a plumb line for the clamour for new constituent colleges and branch campuses to be awarded charters and become fully-fledged universities. Taking into account that universities were being perceived as engines of job creation and other socio-economic benefits, this aspect increased pressure on the government to establish new universities, irrespective of their quality.

By design, most of the new public universities are low-cost institutions that mimic the teaching of social sciences and humanities and are usually offered in academic garages of the elite universities outside the main campuses. There have been 23 public universities established in the last five years in rural areas. They include Garissa University that came into the international limelight when 147 of its students were killed by Al-Shabaab militants in 2015.

Recent developments now indicate that Kenya’s unregulated multi-campus university system that depended heavily on marketisation of higher education is in deep trouble. The seams started showing strains in 2016, two years after many satellite campuses attained fully-fledged university status, a move that killed the cash cow of the elite universities.

Early this year, John Muraguri, chief executive of the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, an agency that coordinates placement of government-sponsored students to universities, warned that some institutions were not attracting students. For instance, Garissa, which had declared a capacity of 1,440 in 22 academic programmes, only attracted 100 students.

Other universities that started to grapple with severe student rejection included Rongo University, Taita Taveta University, University of Kabianga, South Eastern Kenya University, Pwani University, Laikipia University, Karatina University and Kisii University. A particularly sad story was that of Turkana University in Northern Kenya that attracted not even one student and the government eventually had to encourage students in the region to study there.

According to Muraguri, about half of the 31 public universities failed to fill at least 50% of the slots they declared. What this meant is that apart from getting the government-sponsored students, new universities were not likely to get self-sponsored students.

Now the bubble is about to burst, as the University of Nairobi has announced cost-cutting measures that will include laying off lecturers and putting non-teaching staff on contract. Recently, the university restricted tea and snacks to meetings of the Senate only.

“From now on, print on both sides of the paper, use email, print only when necessary, make meetings short, remove tea and snacks in any meeting except in Senate,” said Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mbithi in a statement outlining some of austerity measures.

Moi University has also announced closure of its two satellite campuses as part of a cost-saving plan that will include a freeze on the hiring of new lecturers and support staff.

What is emerging is that the multi-campus university system in Kenya is in disarray, first and foremost because students have steadily started rejecting most of the courses that were regarded as market-driven “soft” courses.

According to statistics from the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, this year most of the degree courses that had few applicants were those in early childhood education, agribusiness, development studies, project management, hotel and restaurant management and other courses on the market-driven menu.

As Munene has pointed out in his new book, Contextualizing and Organizing Contingent Faculty: Reclaiming academic labor in universities, the emerging rejection of courses in new universities and satellite campuses in Kenya is because of their poor quality which is severely impacted by the low academic qualifications of most part-time lecturers in those learning entities.

“It is increasingly clear that many of the public and private universities have set up satellite campuses in big towns and cities, mainly to generate revenue,” writes Munene. The problem of quality in those institutions is also largely anchored in the cutthroat competition for fee-paying students between different universities, according to Munene. Aiming to attract more students, some universities have been faulted for engaging in credential inflation whereby students are given high pass rates in examinations, even when their performance is mediocre.

Commenting on the issue, Daniel Sifuna, a professor of education at Kenyatta University, says there was little awareness on the part of the government and universities that certain decisions could trigger volatility in academic markets. By awarding charters to public university branch campuses, the government rocked the boat as the move created competition for fee-paying students between main universities and their former surrogates.

During the early stages, when the marketisation model was working in favour of the universities, accrued funds were not even used in staff development. “Instead postgraduate studies, notably masters and PhDs, increasingly became self-funded, with most universities adding this as an important component of their money-generating scheme,” Sifuna told University World News.

So far, some universities are considering phasing out student hostel, catering and accommodation services amid efforts to cut costs. But no matter which direction it takes, the current model of university marketisation that has fuelled expansion of the university sector in Kenya has also impacted negatively on original university missions and quality of education.

But as Professor Ibrahim Ogachi, a programme officer at the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, has pointed out, as lower levels of education become less of a guarantee to formal employment, university level education will continue to be sought in Kenya and probably the time is now to think about another model that would not only be attractive to students, but would boost the quality of higher education.