Machogu retreats on funding, but varsities must be wary

Education CS Ezekiel Machogu during a press conference on November 2, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard]

The walk-back by the newly minted Education CS Ezekiel Machogu on the funding of public universities was most welcome.

Many of us who are products of the public education system were in shock that a government, which had been elected on a hustler platform, could appear to be so obtuse on such a critical matter. That is not to say that the minister’s declaration does not raise issues that require serious introspection by our public universities.

There is no doubt that Kenyan public universities have been too dependent on public funding and too lackluster is seeking innovative ways to expand their financing base. In most universities in the developed world, links with corporates and industry provide a key source of university funding.

Corporates provide funds to engineering and medical faculties for research. Most groundbreaking inventions arise in university classrooms. I had the privilege of taking a short course in one of America’s best universities when the pharmaceutical industry was pouring millions of dollars in the medical faculty to develop a drug for prostate cancer. The other source is university alumni, many of whom have done well and feel a debt to their alma-mater.

Such alumni and other public-spirited philanthropists establish endowment funds for sustainable funding of university education while others establish “Chairs” to fund professorships in select areas. It is a marvel that the University of Nairobi, which was the source of most graduates for decades and can account for the most established professionals and businesspeople only set up its Alumni Association two years ago. How much would a well-structured and well managed alumni scheme have contributed to sustainable funding for this university?

The science faculties in Kenyan universities hardly have structured engagement with industry. Only a small number of industries and pharmaceutical companies, despite spending millions in innovation, invest in research through our universities. We can blame industry, but my people say the person with a bad stomach is the one who seeks the forest. With increased student numbers and less fiscal space for governments, public funding of universities has gone down globally, and even more intensely in Africa, from a high of 90 per cent in the 1980s, to increasingly lower levels of not more than 40 per cent in most of the continent.

There is, therefore, no doubt that globally, historical guarantees are no more, and wiser institutions are those that will expand their revenue bases urgently. That said, implementing the Minister’s threat at this time would have disastrous effects on the majority poor whose only pathway of crossing from debilitating poverty to possibilities of sharing a portion of the national cake is through access to publicly funded university education.

To provide free secondary school education and then close the doors to university entry for the millions of capable, competent but grossly poor children would be crass, cruel, callous, and contrary to the most basic tenets of the hustler philosophy.  Over the years, I have supported numerous students to raise the meagre fees that are required by the publicly funded universities. Many students from poor families can hardly afford even these subsidized rates.

But once they get in, they perform exceptionally, outcompeting their more well-endowed colleagues. I know many families whose fortunes have been transformed through their children having accessed university and who would remain condemned to penury if we were to privatise all university learning. We have already stratified society in the lower levels of learning; most students go from nursery school to high school without ever encountering the children of the majority hustlers who must endure public “polling station” schools.

The only chance of connection betwixt the two strata is university, since some of the best universities are still the public ones, meaning even the wealthy bring their kids here. There is critical cross pollination that comes from this intermingling, and we must thus ensure that this link is kept alive. That may mean that the student loan programme could be more expansive and poor-friendly than it is today.