Odinga? Ruto? Presidential candidates promise to change HE

Kenya’s higher education sector is staring at major reforms, following proposals made by the two top presidential candidates ahead of the country’s 9 August general elections.

In proposed changes, which range from free tuition for all university students to interest-free student loans, Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, and his close competitor, Dr William Ruto, the deputy president, have announced key proposals which, if implemented, will drastically change the sector for good.

Odinga, once the country’s prime minister, who is seeking to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta, has promised to roll out free university education for all learners.

“Every child born in this country will have an equal opportunity from nursery, primary [and] secondary [school] to university. The funds that get looted belong to you, hence I promise to close all those loopholes and get the required funds to cater for this plan,” said Odinga, whom pollsters have placed ahead in the presidential race, with an average rating of 44%.

Odinga has yet to announce any other proposals for the university subsector or the details of how the free-learning programme will be rolled out, given that the government already pays tuition for regular students in public universities.

How will politicians fund their promises?

For his part, the deputy president, rated at 38% in recent polls, has made a raft of proposed changes to the higher education sector in a manifesto launched on 25 June 2022.

He has, for example, committed to double the current Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) funding from US$110 million to US$222 million, to increase the agency’s capacity to lend to more students.

Still on university loans, Ruto says he will make the HELB loan interest-free, potentially removing the repayment burden for graduates who are currently charged 4% for their loans.

Independent analysts have lauded the proposed changes but are concerned that the candidates have not clearly indicated how they will fund their implementation. The government is currently struggling to meet the financial demands of public universities due to a huge state deficit.

Last month, Kenya raised its debt ceiling to US$85.69 billion from US$80 billion to allow for more borrowing to fund the budget in the year through June 2023. The country is running on a deficit of 6.2% of gross domestic product.

In May, the National Treasury effected a further cut in funding to public universities for the financial year beginning July 2022.

In a budget statement, the treasury said it had allocated US$793 million from the US$1.003 billion allocated for the current financial year, a 20% cut.

The universities had requested US$1.8 billion from the government in their budget plans. The funding gap for public universities has more than doubled in the past two years, signalling even tougher days ahead for the cash-strapped institutions.

Public universities rely largely on government subsidies to run their operations. The government capitation, however, currently covers only 57% of the learners, instead of the target of 80%. This allocation is applied mainly to pay staff salaries, leaving little or no funding for promoting quality.

“The proposals coming from the candidates are good to have and quite transformative on face value. The devil is in how they will be funded. Most of them are cash-intensive and, looking at how the government is performing budget-wise, I don’t see the magic any of the candidates will do to afford the reforms,” said Dan Ngugi, an education consultant and part-time lecturer based in Nairobi. The university sector is, however, ripe for reforms to address the current challenges, he added.

Technical universities

Ruto has promised to ensure that each of the country’s 47 counties will play host to a public university. Today, only 15 of the counties have universities within their borders, with four of the five top universities located in Kiambu and Nairobi counties.

Each of these county-based universities, said Ruto, will focus on courses relevant to the host area. “For example, the universities in Mombasa should have courses that focus on the blue economy, while those in Turkana will have mining and extractive courses,” he said while launching his manifesto in Nairobi.

The deputy president said, if elected, he will push for the construction of new technical universities from the current three to eight across the eight regions, with each serving as a regional incubation and innovation centre.

Students who graduate from technical and vocational education and training, or TVET institutions, will benefit from a credit transfer framework to help them progress their studies through universities, he added.

He has also committed to rolling out the proposed National Open University which has been on the cards for the past decade, with an eye to increasing access and reducing the enrolment pressure on existing universities.

The manifesto has also proposed to amend the Universities Act, 2012, to allow transfer of managements of universities, including recruitment of top administrators from the public service to the specific universities.

In another major proposal, Ruto plans to introduce a one- to two-year paid National Internship Programme for all students graduating from higher learning institutions, through a collaboration scheme with the private sector.

“We will also introduce a National Education Fund to mobilise grants, bursaries and scholarships from private and public sponsors to cater for non-tuition costs,” he added.