Funding crisis: Government, HE leaders still without a plan

Kenya’s 35 public universities and their constituent colleges are reeling under debts totalling more than KES60 billion (about US$456 million) in workers’ pensions, income tax deductions and other statutory staff remittances but, currently, neither the vice-chancellors nor the government is providing a roadmap on how to salvage the almost insolvent institutions.

To complicate a bad situation even further, the Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB, a public body that provides loans to tertiary students in Kenya, says it has run out of money to give loans to undergraduate university students and tertiary students in technical colleges.

Addressing a parliamentary committee on public investment in education on 22 March, HELB Chief Executive Charles Ringera said there was no money to give loans to about 140,000 students.

“Currently, we need 5.7 billion Kenya shillings (US$43.2 million) because we have run out of cash, although we had presented our budget to the treasury,” said Ringera.

According to him, HELB’s inability to provide loans to students stems from defaulters that had not been servicing their higher education loans after graduating. “Some of the defaulters include members of parliament,” Ringera told the committee.

He said defaulters have weakened HELB’s capacity to cater for students as, to date, defaulters are in arrears of 60.6 billion Kenya shillings (US$461.2million) of which 8.45 billion Kenya shillings (US$64.1 million) was accrued in the past 10 years.

Allaying concerns on availability of student loans, on 24 March, two days after HELB indicated bankruptcy, Kenya’s President William Ruto said funds were now available. “I want to announce that in the past two weeks, we have allocated funds to the HELB, so that students can continue with studies without constraints,” said Ruto.

Crisis runs deep

But the crisis of funding higher education in Kenya runs deep – beyond HELB loans that are given to students to pay for subsidised accommodation and food in the hostels of public institutions.

According to Karuti Kanyinga, a professor of development studies at the University of Nairobi, the funding crisis in higher education in Kenya is historical and is embedded in rising student enrolments without a corresponding increase in the state allocation to those institutions.

He argues that funding challenges will continue to deepen and the number of insolvent universities in Kenya will increase if universities cannot find new sources of funding.

Currently, Kenya is spending 1.2% of its gross domestic product on higher education, which Kanyinga says is higher than many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

In addition, the country has further increased university enrolment that stood at 562,000 students in the 2021-22 academic year, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

But, as Kanyinga pointed out, very little in terms of the financing of higher education has changed for quite a long time.

“Fees that universities charge government-sponsored students have not changed since 1989,” he said.

Vice-chancellors’ conference

Indeed, that was one of the recommendations by vice-chancellors in a conference held last month that urged the government to sanction an increase of tuition fees from the current 16,000 Kenya shillings (about US$122) to about US$365, but the call was muted when the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Ezekiel Machogu Ombaki, abruptly said the government was not ready to increase fees.

The conference, that was organised by the Universities Funding Board in collaboration with other stakeholders, had also come up with a revised differentiated unit cost, a formula that involved funding public universities by the government based on the courses that they offer.

The vice-chancellors’ conference was also held during the same period that Ruto said he was not impressed with recommendations of the presidential working party on education reforms that he had appointed in December last year to review and to give recommendations on the entire education sector.

While Ruto had earlier accepted basic education recommendations, he was not impressed with the committee’s recommendations on higher education and he sent members back to the drawing board.

“We need to align ourselves to the national development agenda and the Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First Coalition) vision. I felt we presented nothing new from what’s already in the public domain,” the president is reported to have told the committee.

Although the committee’s recommendations were not made public, what is emerging is that the committee whose chair, Professor Raphael Munavu, a former vice-chancellor of Moi University, had urged the government to rescue public universities that are cash-strapped without delay.

But, even if the Kenya government were to rescue the ailing universities, there are many questions to be answered as to whether some of those universities would revert to the old ways and incur debts in future, especially if the level of state funding to those institutions remains unpredictable.

Ruto on a tightrope?

In that matter, Ruto’s government appears to be walking a tightrope when it comes to taking decisive action on rescuing the almost bankrupt universities and raising tuition fees.

Ruto, himself a shrewd political actor is well aware of #FeesMustFall, the South African student protest movement of 2015 that questioned the overall governance of higher education and raised issues of decolonisation and financial exclusion in the public universities.

Unlike his predecessors, Ruto is under intense pressure, not just from his Kenya Kwanza supporters who want him to fulfil electoral pledges but also from his opponents at Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya (Resolution of Unity One Kenya) that have been giving him sleepless nights by calling for public demonstrations and almost outright defiance of his government.

In this regard, the government is keen not to have thousands of university students drawn into anti-government protests and, as of now, students appear to be carefully watching the unfolding political scenario in the country that could change swiftly if tuition fees were to be raised.

The idea of having tuition fees raised in public universities in Kenya had been there since the 1980s when the World Bank introduced structural adjustments in Sub-Saharan Africa. The idea gained momentum in the late 1990s when cost-sharing in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa became the norm but tuition fees for government-supported universities in Kenya remained low.

In effect, a large number of students that are selected to join regular programmes in Kenya’s public universities or, for that matter, their counterparts across Sub-Saharan Africa, are products of some of the best kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in their countries where tuition fees are many times higher than the tuition fees levied at the universities.

A special plan is needed

Commenting on the issue, Professor ABK Kasozi, the former executive director of Uganda’s National Council for Higher Education, says such high quality basic education institutions provided those students with a good head start in education that enabled them to get the good grades required for admission to public universities.

But the politics of tuition fees and the inability of universities to increase tuition fees for such groups of students in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa are rooted in the colonial past whereby university education was traditionally free and, since then, students and their parents had not been willing to accept any fees increment without giving the system a good fight.

In Kenya, there is even pride among well-to-do parents for their children being on regular degree programmes in public universities, not just because of getting in through high academic grades, but because of their low fees, even if they could afford to pay higher tuition fees.

Still, although some people in Kenya think that increased funding by the government and increasing student fees would salvage those institutions from the brink of bankruptcy, something special would have to be done to eradicate corruption and improve institutional governance.

Kanyinga said that, between 2002 and 2016 when public universities enjoyed increased revenue from the privately sponsored students, vice-chancellors and their management committees did not pay attention to improving institutional capacity in terms of research facilities and innovation.

Most public universities were engaged in opening academic garages in urban centres and very little was invested in research or building a capacity of young lecturers. Money was lost through employment of ghost part-time lecturers until the government closed those academic sites.

It is against this background that Ruto’s government has found itself in the dilemma of trying to come up with sustainable solutions to the financial stresses facing public universities.

Despite his political acumen, finding good medicine for Kenya’s sickly universities will not be easy for Ruto and his committee. But, if they were to succeed, their treatment would give hope to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where universities are suffering from a similar financial disease, and possibly give Ruto a lasting footprint on the higher education landscape in Africa.