Kenyan HE loses as politicians try to score election wins

All Kenya’s former presidents, Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, had an appetite for stamping indelible marks on the development of the country’s university system – and Uhuru Kenyatta, belatedly, has walked in the footsteps of his predecessors.

On 2 August, just a week ahead of the general election that paved the way for his exit from State House after serving two five-year terms, Uhuru awarded charters – the licence to operate as fully fledged universities – to eight institutions, some of them small rural constituent colleges.

The newly minted universities include Kaimosi Friends University, Alupe University, Tom Mboya University and Tharaka University. Others are Lukenya University, Zetech University, Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology and The East African University.

The first four were constituent colleges of various public universities and now it means they will expand their mandates and will admit students and offer degrees under their own statutes. The other four were private universities, which operated in terms of interim government approval.

But, whereas Jomo Kenyatta and Moi controlled the growth of higher education and regarded universities purely as training grounds for producing high-level human resources needed to drive the country’s economy forward, Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta had been passionate expansionists.

By the time Moi left office in 2003, Kenya had six public universities. Fast forward to 2013, when Kibaki retired, after adding 16 more universities to the list. About 80% of these universities were established in 2012-13, only a year before he left the political stage.

In his agenda for higher education, Uhuru opted to trace Kibaki’s footprints as, in the past seven years of his administration, 14 fully fledged universities and five public university constituent colleges were established.

One of those colleges included the Mama Ngina University College, a constituent college of Kenyatta University. The college bears the name of Uhuru’s mother and is located near his rural home, but it was not on the list of the institutions that were recently upgraded.

How a politician can become a ‘local hero’

Kenya now has 36 public universities, five public university constituent colleges, 33 private universities and three private university constituent colleges, all with a total enrolment of 562,000 students in 2021-22, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Although the ultimate objective since the dawn of the new millennium had been to create access to higher education, critics have faulted the process in which new universities were established.

According to Ishmael Munene, a professor of research and higher education at Northern Arizona University in the United States, although the policy to have more universities was in the right direction amid the onslaught of increasing social demand, the project had been poorly executed.

“Expansion strategies in the last two decades had been laced with regional and ethnic politics of university ownership, whereby charters for establishment of public universities had been awarded in response to pressure from ethnic groups seeking universities in their locality,” said Munene.

In this regard, the benefits of higher education reforms in terms of achieving equity, quality and widening access to university education in Kenya appear to have been lost to ethnic competition for control of state resources that include the establishment of public universities in certain areas.

Given the perception of a university being crucial to regional development through job creation and providing other tracks for the generation of wealth, Munene argues that it is hardly surprising that the location of a university in Kenya tends to be a contested political issue.

In that context, a politician associated with influencing the establishment of a public university in the tribal backyard is considered as a local hero and he or she is likely to enjoy strong support in competitive politics.

Politically motivated educational change?

According to Dr Andrew Riechi, an educational researcher and a senior lecturer of economics at the University of Nairobi, it cannot be ruled out that the upgrading of the eight universities only a few days before the expiry of Uhuru’s presidential period was politically motivated.

“Awarding charters to universities in the western region was aimed at making the residents there happy so they can listen to Uhuru’s advice to vote for Raila Odinga, his presidential candidate of choice,” said Munene Macharia, a political analyst and a professor of history and international relations at the United States International University, or the USIU-Africa.

This was telling as two of the institutions that were upgraded, Alupe University and Kaimosi Friends University are located in the vote rich western region and most of the leaders who attended the awarding ceremony were also from the area. In the recent election, Uhuru supported Odinga, his former rival, against his deputy, Dr William Ruto.

Ethnicity and tribalism

Eventually, on 15 August, Ruto won the hotly contested presidential election and was declared the winner by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission after getting 50.49% of the vote against Odinga’s 48.85%. However, there might be a petition to the Supreme Court.

The recent upgrading of universities as an attraction to influence voting had been intentional, as in 2016, while seeking a second presidential term, Uhuru played a similar card whereby he awarded charters to eight universities ahead of the country going to the polls the following year.

The eight universities that were upgraded leading to the general election in 2017 included KAG East University, Rongo University, Cooperative University, Taita Taveta University, Murang’a University of Technology, University of Embu, Machakos University and Kirinyaga University.

While there is nothing wrong in establishing universities in different parts of the country, Munene told University World News that what had been of great concern is the introduction of a regressive ethnic equation into the development of university education.

Highlighting the problem, Munene said that, on many occasions, political expediency has overshadowed the bureaucratic coordination of university education.

“During periods of intense political competition, political interest based on ethnic considerations has set the pace for the development of tertiary education in ways that have confused planners,” said Munene.

But the underlying issue is, whereas the recent awarding of charters to several universities in order to influence voting in a particular way may not have worked as expected in the just-ended plebiscite, expansion of universities on ethnic lines will not diminish with the Uhuru administration.

The consequences of unplanned expansion

Subsequently, there had been disappointment in that, instead of establishing specialised universities and funding them properly, in the past two decades, presidents had been upgrading small colleges into universities in a bid to sway various ethnic groups from political opposition.

“What we need are highly specialised institutions of agricultural sciences and applied technology, rather than numerous universities offering the same academic programmes,” said Riechi, responding to the recent upgrading of universities by Uhuru.

But, as Munene pointed out, about all the public universities and public university colleges outside the cosmopolitan capital, Nairobi, institutional names, leadership and even large segments of faculty and support workers reflect the ethnicity of their locality.

In this aspect, defenders and agitators for tribal balance in development of higher education in Kenya think it is vital for the ‘village universities’ to have leaders from the same ethnic group as a strategy to safeguard what they consider to be the interests of the local communities.

Sadly, the expansion of university education in Kenya has for several decades been intertwined with chauvinistic ethnic politics that will be hard to suppress. Already, there are indicators that some ethnic groups that failed to get a public university during the Kibaki and Uhuru regimes may push Ruto to upgrade colleges in their localities in the promise of getting their political support.

Although academic performance of Kenya’s tertiary education sector compares favourably with many others in African countries, currently many universities in the country are facing funding challenges with the International Monetary Fund last year urging the government to close some of the university campuses, as well as merge some of the cash-strapped universities to cut costs.

But, whereas it would have been prudent to consolidate the existing universities, ethnic partisanship and attempts to win political scores won the day and history will paint Uhuru’s presidential legacy as being a leader who failed to improve quality and relevance of education that would have increased employment opportunities of graduates, irrespective of their ethnic origins.