Universities get more funding, but fee hike still possible

Kenya’s government has raised its funding to public universities for the next financial year by 33%, marking the biggest increment in the past five years, but they are by no means out of the woods.

In a decision that reversed an earlier stand by the government not to increase the annual allocations, the institutions will receive US$1.53 billion in the next financial year that begins in July.

In the current fiscal year, the government had set aside US$1.15 billion for universities. Early last year, the Ministry of Education ruled out any future increase in government funding to universities, setting the stage for a sharp rise in student fees.

Welcome move

The new development is therefore a welcome move for universities, which have struggled to meet their financial obligations, but a fee hike is still on the cards.

Of the US$1.53 billion allocated, only US$240 million will go into building infrastructure. The balance will be gobbled up by recurrent expenditure, according to financials contained in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework 2020/21 - 2022/23 Education report released by the Treasury last week.

Education Cabinet Secretary Professor George Magoha said going forward the government would consider putting more resources into the sector to drive growth.

“The government has also prioritised human capital development by revamping the education system to factor in inclusivity and equity to match the future needs of the global labour market. Principally, the government is investing in quality and relevant education, including revamping the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector, which together are creating critical skills for a strong manufacturing base while putting more resources in the university sub-sector,” said Magoha.

“To break the traditional norm that education was a preserve for elites in society, the government will continue to make sustained investments in the education sector. Going forward, the government will continue to prioritise the education sector and allocate resources to enhance access to basic and higher education, skills development and training, teacher recruitment and infrastructure development as well as construction and equipping of technical institutions,” he said.

The increment, university administrators said, is unlikely to completely end the pressure on universities, which need an additional US$250 million to meet annual needs.

Funding gap

“While the increment is welcome, the funding gap remains a big problem seeing that there is a need to expand existing infrastructure,” said a Nairobi-based university administrator who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals.

This means current and future students could still be slapped with increased fees and other operational costs.

Late last year, vice-chancellors from public universities sought clearance from treasury and the education ministry to raise fees – in some cases three-fold. This will mean that all state-sponsored students in public institutions will pay US$600 annually in tuition fees, up from the current US$265 in a plan that is expected to be rolled out in annual phases.

Public universities are currently under pressure to honour a pay deal they had agreed with lecturers, who are demanding close to US$140 million. The lecturers have threatened to go on strike after the government failed to honour a collective bargaining agreement signed on 28 October last year.

A number of public universities have been given six years to clear pension deductions owed to the country’s workers' retirement funds or face massive penalties and action.

The Retirement Benefits Authority, the pension sector regulator, said six universities were holding over US$50 million in unremitted funds, a debt that has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Data shows that government capitation has been significant compared to the total revenues generated by most public universities as witnessed in the last five years.

A 2016 report by the Commission for University Education 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 as insolvent.

In 2012 the country had seven public universities. Today it has 31. Student enrolment has risen from 122,847 in 2008 to 560,434 in 2019, with the largest number of enrolments (510,700) being in the public universities.