Mergers, overhauls and job cuts on the cards in new reforms

Job cuts and the overhaul of university courses are in the offing as the Kenyan government rolls out radical reforms which anticipate the mergers of some universities and campuses to leave the country with fewer institutions that are better staffed and have adequate facilities.

Hundreds of ongoing infrastructure projects in universities will also be audited and refocused while others will be abandoned altogether, in reforms targeted at streamlining how institutions manage their finances.

Over the past few weeks, universities have been ordered by government to execute austerity measures ahead of the most comprehensive review of the higher education sector in the country’s post-independence era.

“University reforms are critical at this stage. We shall review all the universities’ public financial and management systems; appraise ongoing projects with a view to restructuring them,” said Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich.

Mergers and closures

“We will also implement radical measures that will include merger or closure of some universities and university campuses that are not able to sustain their operations against the number of students admitted or degree courses offered,” he said in his 2019-20 budget speech to the National Assembly on 13 June.

His education counterpart, Professor George Magoha, has directed universities to freeze the establishment of new campuses and consolidate similar academic programmes to ensure greater resource efficiency. This will also see universities specialise in programmes in which they are relatively strong.

“There are many programmes in our universities that fail to attract a single student. This situation must be addressed. The Commission for University Education must conduct a thorough analysis of these courses with a view to addressing this scenario, including a review and scrapping of such programmes,” said Magoha who recently summoned all vice-chancellors of universities to Nairobi for a briefing on the impending reforms.

Magoha, who is a former University of Nairobi vice-chancellor, gave the institutions two weeks – until 5 July – to work with the regulator to review academic programmes.

Staff union objections

The proposed reforms have triggered a showdown which could end up in court. The Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) has opposed the merger plan, saying it is punitive and risks undermining higher education.

“The mergers will affect jobs, and as a union we will oppose them at all costs. How will merging broke universities make them financially sound? Why is the same government which set up the institutions now wanting to close them?” UASU Secretary General Constantine Wasonga asked at a press conference on 4 July. “We will not accept new policies without public participation.”

Worried about the deteriorating credentials of Kenya’s higher education, the government has been talking tough and pushing for changes to get value for the taxpayers’ money it invests in the sector.

Kenya’s education sector draws nearly 30% of the national budget. For the financial year beginning 1 July, the Treasury allocated US$977 million to university education and US$126 million to the Higher Education Loans Board, the agency that disburses government loans to students.

New fundraising models

Universities are also expected to adopt new fundraising models to keep pace with the growing demand for education and to reduce overreliance on government funding. Currently, over 80% of public universities’ financial needs are met by government.

Kenya has 74 universities and has witnessed rapid growth in the past five years owing to enhanced investments in both private and public university sectors. In 2012 the country had seven public universities; today it has 31. Student enrolment has also risen from 122,847 in 2008 to 586,434 in 2018, with the largest enrolment (507,554) being in public universities.

Early last year, former education cabinet secretary Amina Mohamed directed the Commission for University Education to justify the existence of all universities and called on universities to defend their academic programmes and provide evidence of staffing levels.

Although the number of qualified lecturers has been growing, it lags far behind the student enrolment rate. According to UASU, 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.