Universities to feel the impact of Ruto’s reform efforts

Plans are underway in Kenya for the government to re-introduce, extensively, the marketisation of university education. This is an academic model that will see the return, in large numbers, of fee-paying students to public higher education institutions, many of which are almost bankrupt and on the verge of collapse.

The scheme was initially borrowed from Uganda’s Makerere University in 1998 to harness private funds to support public universities, but was dropped in 2016 when the government decided to give financial support to all students who attained minimum university entry grades.

In this context, the government will stop the automatic subsidisation of students who meet the minimum university entry qualifications, as well as cease sponsoring students who are enrolled in private institutions, in an effort to redirect many of these students to public universities.

Announcing the decision on 8 December 2022, President William Ruto said the Kenyan government will no longer fund all students who attained the minimum entrance requirement, pegged at those who obtained A to grade C+ in the school-leaving qualification, the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), or similar equivalent qualifications that are awarded by examination bodies from other countries.

Prior to 2016, the government used to support students that acquired grades of B and above, which was dropped to B- for female students.

In practice, the government support means it pays most of the tuition fees directly to universities as a capitation per student. The student is also eligible to get a loan from the Higher Education Loans Board to enable him or her to pay for accommodation and food at university hostels.

“My administration is going to ensure that we will create a framework that makes it possible for every public university to admit students that the government can support,” said Ruto.

In November 2022 Ezekiel Machogu, the cabinet secretary in charge of the Ministry of Education, fired the first shot by saying that government will no longer fund public universities and colleges, although he later retracted his statement after the Universities Academic Staff Union protested.

Now it appears the government was testing public opinion on the matter before announcing the new policy.

Ruto made the announcement as Kenyans wait for the final recommendations of a presidential working party on educational reform that was appointed shortly after his election on 30 September 2022 to review the entire education system.

A shift in focus

However, as Kenyans await more detail on who will be subsidised to pursue higher education qualifications and what the funding criteria will be, there are indicators that the government’s focus is continuing to shift towards technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, and away from university education.

The issue is that whereas increasing funding of public universities was one of the promises made by the Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya Coalition Party – if it came to power, Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza
(Kenya First) coalition insisted that there will be radical reforms in higher education.

However, while Ruto avoided the subject of the funding of public universities in political rallies, he heaped praise on TVET institutions and other forms of professional learning in such venues.

For instance in June 2022, while launching his education charter, Kenya Kwanza Education Charter: Knowledge and skills for sustainable bottom up economy, Ruto praised the government for having increased the number of TVET students from 89,000 in 2013 to 408,000 students in 2022.

“That has created human capital that is more focused, with skills and competencies that will help us to achieve the targets of 2030 and beyond,” Ruto said.

Ruto expressed satisfaction that vocational training could open a window of opportunity for Kenya to start exporting artisan labour, especially to Western Europe and the Middle East, since remittances from Kenyans abroad have recently exceeded exports of coffee and tea.

In effect, Ruto intends to increase technical universities in Kenya from the current three to eight, which means that each of Kenya’s eight regions will have a technical university.

In the next five years, his education manifesto explained, the government will ensure that each of Kenya’s 290 constituencies has a TVET institution, of which 52 will be built in the next two years.

Are the reforms introducing social inequalities?

Ruto has also promised to set up a National Skills and Funding Council that will merge the Universities Funding Board, the TIVET Board and the Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB.

However, while the manifesto stated that the Kenya Kwanza government will increase student loans from the HELB, from the current 11 billion Kenya shillings (US$89.3 million) to 22 billion Kenya shillings (US$178.6 million), the document was silent on capitation levels and other modalities of funding for the country’s cash-strapped public universities, or how the loans will be disbursed.

Whereas the funding of students in private institutions, or 'parallel' students, could be an alternative to providing the much-needed injection of cash into public universities, the system has the effect of introducing social inequalities. Parallel students are those who pay full-user fees and cannot be accommodated in public university hostels.

The issue is that, as in the past, students from rich families will be able to access high profile degree programmes such as medicine and engineering with greater ease than their peers from poor backgrounds who cannot afford to pay the full-cost user fees.

Since the government has not announced student subsidisation details, it might look to Uganda for a learning experience whereby the government sponsors only a fraction of eligible university students each year.

However, without applying some sort of a means test criteria, or meritocratic mechanisms, to access government scholarships, the revival of massive marketisation of university education could be lopsided to reward students in ethnic communities or regions for future political support.

Education as a political tool

Already there are signs that this may happen because Ruto’s government intends to accord special preferences to communities in the districts that are often regarded to have been historically marginalised, most of them in the Rift Valley region which is his political backyard.

Beyond improving education and infrastructure in those areas, the Kenya Kwanza manifesto says the government will ensure employment of all university graduates from marginalised areas by 2027.

To clarify the issue, the manifesto uses a Kiswahili analogy farasi angoje punda, a phrase that literally means that the horse should wait for the donkey, but in this case applied to the race for access to university education and economic progress.

In that context, it appears that there is a calculated political and ethnic agenda of using tertiary education to benefit certain tribal groups for political support, because the manifesto has not clarified what will happen after the donkey catches up with the horse in the race.

Like his predecessors Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, who both created new universities to curry favour with communities for immediate political backing, Ruto also appears keen to use tertiary education, albeit in a different way, towards cementing his political career.

Ruto is likely to shred into pieces Kibaki and Uhuru’s political scripts, as he was a front-bench student of Daniel arap Moi, the man who referred to himself as the professor of Kenya’s politics and had little respect for social sciences that he considered to yield a bad influence on youth.

As Moi’s political intern in Kenya’s fluid politics, Ruto’s new game plan for Kenya’s education is not so new and bears traces of his mentor’s educational philosophy.

In the early 1980s the former president established Moi University with a huge academic menu of degrees in technology and sciences, arguably as a reaction to the University of Nairobi, whose graduates were critical of his administration.

Moi had contempt for social sciences and constantly argued that university students in Kenya looked down on manual labour and only expected to have office work. It is this kind of thinking that appears to have rubbed off on Ruto, who is mounting a huge vocational training agenda.

Commenting on the issue last year, Ruto had this to say: “When unemployed university graduates ask us what we, the wheelbarrow pushers, will do for them, they miss the obvious fact that the demand for the white-collar jobs they desire [is] dependent on the size of the market.”

The wheelbarrow was a campaign symbol for Ruto and his supporters in the Kenya Kwanza coalition as they sought to identify themselves with the poor.

However, while Ruto's statement about jobs could be true, there is also a political catch, especially when he pledges that jobs will be available for all graduates from marginalised areas in the country without considering many other graduates living in pockets of poverty, especially squatters in urban slums and informal settlements who are also economically and socially marginalised.

Granted, there are many poor people in historically marginalised areas, and in those districts there are also rich livestock owners, large-scale farmers and business people whose family members should not be candidates for special preference and affirmative action benefits.

However, just like Kibaki and Uhuru rewarded some electoral strongholds with universities, Ruto also sees the need to build bastions of loyal voters because he is not sure whether the voting blocks that were brought together in last year’s election will remain cohesive by the next poll.

In his assessment, and more so like Moi before him, Ruto takes TVET graduates to be less noisy on political matters in comparison to their counterparts from the public universities.

By providing more practical education, Ruto probably hopes that this would address immediate social ills such as unemployment, as well making many Kenyans more amenable to the ruling elites and less demanding of his government.

However, university education in Kenya remains a sensitive issue and even as Ruto goes ahead to fortify practical training by increasing the number of TVET colleges, many Kenyans regard university education as a public good that should be shared on merit and without discrimination.