New poor linked to quality problems in higher education

The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya is forcing large numbers of young university graduates and their counterparts in other tertiary education institutions into extreme poverty, according to a report from the World Bank, which states that the ‘new poor’ are in urban areas.

The report, Kenya Economic Update: Rising above the waves, states the new poor have a different profile from the existing poor population that is predominantly rural, working in agriculture and has little or no higher education.

“The new poor often live in urban areas, are engaged in manufacturing and services and have higher levels of education.”

Although the situation might be temporary, the report argues that the crisis has caused sharp losses in income and hardship to the extent that some households might not withstand future shocks, especially those without well-paying jobs and mostly relying on the hard-hit urban service businesses.

According to the World Bank, the COVID-19 pandemic only made a situation that was already developing worse, as employment in Kenya has been shifting from stable-wage employment to self-employment within informal micro-businesses, especially among young graduates.

In this regard, the World Bank warns that the problem could deteriorate soon, taking into account that Kenya’s largest age cohort is between the ages of 10 and 14 years and will be ready to join the labour market in the next 10 years.

Massive increase in working-age population

“Over the decade from 2020 to 2029, the working-age population in Kenya will increase by an average of one million per year,” noted the report that was prepared by a team of researchers from the Macroeconomics, Trade and Investment Global Practice of the World Bank.

To overcome the situation that seems to be getting worse, the report says the solution lies in Kenya’s higher education system providing graduates with the skills that employers are looking for.

But, while Kenya has made progress in increasing access to higher education, skills remain low among the current stock of workers. According to the World Bank, workers often lack basic skills such as reading, writing or basic computer skills.

A skills survey, known as the ‘Kenya – STEP Skills Measurement Household Survey 2013 (Wave 2)’, conducted in Kenya some years ago found that most adults with secondary education are functionally illiterate in English, while among individuals with university education, less than a quarter are functionally literate in English, which is the language commonly used in most companies and government offices in Kenya.

“Employers, furthermore, identify the inability to handle computers for work-related tasks as one of the most significant skills gaps among white-collar workers in Kenya,” noted the report.

An expanding higher education system

According to the World Bank report, the crux of the matter is that university education in Kenya has expanded rapidly with limited resources.

In the past decade, universities increased from seven chartered public universities and 15 constituent colleges in 2012 to 31 chartered public universities and seven constituent colleges in 2019, while chartered private universities increased from 15 to 36.

Consequently, enrolment rose from about 440,000 learners in the 2014-15 academic year to about 520,000 in 2017-18, effectively making Kenya the country with the fourth-largest concentration of university students in Sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia.

But rapid expansion came at the expense of quality as, according to the World Bank, most public and private universities in Kenya do not have enough qualified staff.

“Soaring student-teacher ratios have undermined the quality of existing programmes, as teaching and other learning practices continue to be traditional in most higher education institutions, with over-reliance on rote learning and outdated curricula,” states the World Bank report.

As to whether universities would be able to turn around quickly in the present context, Dr Alex Sienaert, a senior economist for Kenya at the World Bank’s Macroeconomics, Trade and Investment Global Practice and one of the authors of the report, said the financing situation is constrained, with universities facing severe cash-flow problems, declining financial resources and debt.

As of April this year, public universities’ debt amounted to about KES57 billion (approximately US$518 million), according to the Universities Funding Board.

In his report, Geoffrey Monari, chief executive officer of the board, said the debt was predominantly in the form of workers’ statutory deductions such as income tax, pension funds and non-remittance of staff savings to their associations.

Although the government had been promising to undertake reforms in higher education for some time, in recent days, the International Monetary Fund had been calling for urgent radical reforms at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, two of Kenya’s largest universities.

Even then, it appears as if Kenya’s higher education sector for now and in the near future will continue to suffer quality and financing challenges, which means many universities will not be able to provide the skills that could stop educated young people from sliding into extreme poverty.