Wild expansion, rash policies to blame for crises in universities

A past graduation ceremony. [File,Standard]
A story appearing in the Standard last Wednesday titled “Varsities face closure over debts” speaks volume about the crisis in university education in Kenya, and public institutions in particular.

The crisis is caused by misplaced policies (or no policy at all) and massification or unmanaged university education expansion in the last decade. 

In a meeting to lobby Parliament to intervene on financial matters of the institutions of higher learning, the vice-chancellors (through a tabled report on public universitiesfinancing and budgeting) indicated that public universities will be shut-down by end of next year due to financial crisis.

These institutions owe various regulatory entities more than Sh7 billion in agency fees and another Sh4 billion in salary arrears.

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Exhorbitant charges

The meeting was attended by Education CS Amina Mohammed and officials of CUE, the Higher Education Loans Board, Universities Funding Board and Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Services, and MPs. 

The VCs reported that there are at least 30 bodies or governmental agencies that levied universities for various regulatory requirements. CUE seeks Sh900,000 from each university towards quality audit charges, Sh320,000 for each academic programme and a similar fee towards accreditation charges for each course.

Another Sh1,000 is levied for each student towards quality assurance charges. The Council of Legal Education charges Sh2.1 million for various accreditation to institutions teaching law, while the National Industrial Training Authority levies Sh50 for each employee every month.

Other agencies reported to levy various charges include the Engineers Board of Kenya, Kenya National Qualifications Authority, Technical and Vocational Education and Training, and the Clinical Officers Council among other agencies. 

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Regulatory agencies have taken advantage of lack of robust relevant policies and are using public universities to raise money they need for their daily operations. In the first place, why should these bodies and government agencies be allowed to charge multiple and exorbitant fees to public universities that get money from the government?

Secondly, these bodies give no special technical support to universities to warrant the levies they charge. This has to stop because there is no value for money. 

In the same meeting, the VCs recommended an increase in student fees (each student to pay Sh48,000 up from the current Sh16,000) and adoption of a funding model that would take care of the cost of teaching each programme.

It is my opinion that the two recommendations, as good as they may appear to be, are not the solutions to the crisis university education is facing in Kenya. Without a comprehensive policy-oriented research and use of evidence to inform decision making and planning (including expansionof university and running of academic programmes) such recommendations will create more challenges. 

As researchers and policy analysts have pointed out in many forums and writings (refer to, for example, a book titled “Fifty Years of Education Development in Kenya, 2014), the massification of university education is the root cause of the challenges/gaps the sub-sector is facing.

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Staffing issues

The crisis takes many forms and shapes and include: governance and management, quality and relevance, right and qualified staffing, insufficient and/or dilapidated infrastructure, low remuneration and low morale among staff and ethnic territorialisation (ethnic based universities).

It is high time policy makers, researchers and stakeholders dialogue and build consensus on how to solve the many challenges Kenya’s university education is facing. One solution is to reduce the number of public universities and rationalise the academic programmes and staff in them. This is because available evidence indicates two things among others: 

First, that many of the ´third generation´ universities started in the last five years are not operating optimally. They have enrolled limited number of students but employed many academic and non-academic staff, many of whom add little value to the institutions 

Secondly, 34.9 per cent of the academic programmes currently being offered in in the 31 public universities across the country have less than 10 students (table below) in particular programmes. Which programmes are these with less than 10 students? Are the universities paying the academic staff hired to teach these courses? Why are they offered in the first place? 

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One explanation for having courses with few or no students is simple. There are too many public universities across the country than is actually needed. Besides, there are duplication of academic programmes. Some universities that were expected to specialise in certain programmes like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Agriculture are also offering general courses like BA and Education Arts.

Why did the government allow such universities to move away from their original mandate? Public universities are also facing stiff competition from the many private universities that have emerged in the last five years. 

The expansion of university education has to be controlled. Each county or region cannot have a public university as it appears to happen now. Establishing and running an effective university is not like running a county assembly or an ECDE Centre.

We cannot afford to effectively fund and run ethnic/tribal based institutions of higher learning. They will only serve the political and ethnic purposes. But they will not offer quality teaching, supervision of students, and support useful development research. The many challenges currently faced by public universities will get worse. 

Two, all the technical universities (which were national polytechnics) should be reverted back to middle-level college status to play the role they used to before they were turned into universities through political expedience. 

If the expansion of university education in Kenya is not checked and academic programmes rationalised and controlled, Kenya´s expansion programme will add to the list of failed experiments in higher education in Sub-saharan Africa.

University education, just like the other subsectors of education, need to go through research informed transformation, rationalisation of academic programmes and restructuring of academic units/departments.

Besides, our universities need innovative leadership and strategic management approaches and not just increase of tuition fees and capitation from the Government. If the status quo continues, higher education will shut down sooner rather than later. What good will this bring our country? 

- The writer is public policy analyst and senior researcher at the Centre for Research and Development.

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Public UniversitiesEducationEducation CS Amina MohammedHELB