How to make up for hefty State budget cuts in higher education

In September 2018, the Kenyan government proposed budget cuts targeting university education and vocational and technical training.

The Finance Bill, 2018 slashed Sh1.07 billion from university education and Sh1.3 billion from vocational and technical training. Educators raised concerns over these cuts, citing the fact that public universities were already struggling to stay afloat.

Funding for higher education is a challenge worldwide and governments across the globe have reduced their funding for universities over the years. Under the neoliberal model that has dominated global policy discourse since the turn of the 1980s, higher education has been viewed as a private rather than a public good.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) data show that between 2000 and 2013, government expenditure on education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell in 39 countries, 12 of them in Africa. Expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of total government expenditure fell in 34 countries, of which 11 were African.

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Financial burden

The decrease in Government funding has pushed the financial burden to parents and students, who have to find ways of raising money to pursue university education. This has not only increased student debt globally but has prevented bright students from poor backgrounds from accessing higher education. In the United States, student debt stands at US$1.5 trillion, surpassing credit card debt.

To bridge the funding gap, institutions of higher education have adopted various strategies to rein in costs and raise alternative sources of revenue. They include enlarging class sizes and teaching loads, deferring maintenance, substituting lower-cost part-time faculty for higher-cost full-time faculty, dropping low-priority programmes and cutting or freezing financial assistance. These cost-cutting measures compromise on the quality of university education.

Reports on graduate employability show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economy needs, resulting in graduates spending years searching for employment or being unemployed and underemployed.

A critical measure of the quality of higher education lies in research and development. Here again, African universities face huge challenges. According to Unesco data, in 2013, expenditure on research and development as a percentage of total GDP in Africa was 0.5 per cent compared to a global average of 1.7 per cent.

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Africa accounted for a mere 1.3 per cent of global research and development. Global spending on research and development has now reached US$1.7 trillion, 80 per cent of which is accounted for by only 10 countries. Needless to say, none of them is African.

African researchers have to find ways to attract more funding from business, philanthropic foundations and governments. Besides the benefits this provides in terms of addressing pressing national and regional development challenges, increased research provides universities with a valuable source of additional revenue.

Free tuition

To encourage funding in higher education, governments should provide full free tuition for fewer students – the most needy – or allow universities to charge the difference between government scholarships and the full cost of education.

Governments should also provide tax incentives to facilitate philanthropic support for universities. The private sector and the rich can be mobilised and motivated to increase support for higher education institutions.

According to the 2018 Africa Wealth Report, there are approximately 148,000 high net worth individuals living in Africa whose collective wealth is $920 billion. This represents 40 per cent of individual wealth on the continent and is expected to grow by 34 per cent over the next decade. These individuals can comfortably help bridge the funding gap for Africa’s leading universities.

The challenge of fundraising for African universities is related to both capacity and culture. With the notable exception of some South African institutions, most universities do not have the personnel, skills and IT infrastructure to undertake fundraising which involves dozens of professionals in a variety of roles.

The culture of giving to higher education institutions is also underdeveloped. This is not because philanthropic cultures are weak, but many African communities encourage giving to family members and religious institutions.

Making donations to universities is unusual, and the Alumni, who in systems with well-developed fundraising cultures provide up to 70 per cent of donations to their respective universities, are not socialised into institutional giving.

Prof Zeleza is the Vice Chancellor of the United States International University-Africa

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