Stop sponsoring students in private universities, MP Omboko Milemba to government

Kenya has at least 32 public universities. [File, Standard]

Emuhaya Member of Parliament Omboko Milemba has urged the government to stop sending state-sponsored students to private universities.

Students who score C+ (plus) and above in KCSE exams usually secure automatic placement in universities, and a significant part of their fees is paid for by the State.

Previously, there were varying cut-off points for students to get slots in public universities under the government-sponsorship arrangement.

The threshold grades oscillated between B- (minus) and B (plain), and they were allocated based on gender, with girls having slightly lower cut-off grades than their male counterparts.

In 2015, when Fred Matiang'i was appointed the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Education ministry by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the government announced that all students who scored at least a C+ (plus) in KCSE will secure automatic placement in universities and that the threshold grade system had been abolished.

Public universities' capacities were stretched because they had to deal with a sudden increase in admissions.

This prompted the government to rope in private universities to accommodate the significantly large number of qualified students.

Until later into Mwai Kibaki's tenure as president, Kenya had seven public universities. They were the University of Nairobi (UoN), Moi University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenyatta University (KU), Maseno University, Egerton University and Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST).

This number increased significantly over the years to about 32 public universities in Kenya as of 2021, with the proliferation started by President Kibaki in his second term between 2008 and 2013. Kenya, as of 2021, had some 33 private universities, bringing the total number of universities in the country to 65.

In the traditional university placement setting, students who failed to attain the threshold admission grade, but had at least a C+ (plus) in KCSE, would opt for private sponsorship.

Others who went the self-sponsorship route were those picked for courses that they hadn't applied for, or failed to get the cluster points to join their dream career courses. This group drove up the finances of private universities and even public universities.

However, when government announced in 2015 that all students who scored a minimum of C+ (plus) in KCSE would get automatic qualification to university, the earnings from self-sponsorship programme reduced significantly, pushing some public universities to debts and higher liabilities.

Some universities, including the University of Nairobi, Moi University and Egerton University, have since faced serious financial issues, with some declared bankrupt.

As of June 2022, Kenya's public universities had debts totaling Sh56.1 billion.

It's the insufficient revenue and funding crisis that prompted the National Assembly on Wednesday, November 23, 2022 to discuss the universities' funding situation in the country.

Emuhaya MP Omboko Milemba urged the government to stop sending students to private universities, and, instead, divert the money to public universities.

"What's the point of sending government-sponsored students to private universities?" he posed.

"When we do that, we are using public funds to build private universities. We should consider doing away with the policy of placing state-sponsored students in private universities. The private universities, which are private entrepreneurships, are getting rich at the expense of public universities," said Milemba.

Kamukunji MP Yusuf Hassan said it was unfortunate that some public universities could not remit mandatory deductions such as PAYE, NSSF and NHIF due to cash flow problems.

"Owing to the acute financial crisis, the University of Nairobi was forced to raise tuition and accommodation fees in a bid to stay [financially] afloat. Egerton University, on the other hand, has faced a shutdown of its main campus after industrial action by its lecturers and staff over unpaid salaries," said Haji.

The lawmaker suggested that political and administrative goodwill would help return loss-making public universities to profitability.

"Are we able to sustain all universities, especially those that are run based on local politics? Universities have become political vessels," he said.

Kilgoris MP Julius Sunkuli said the government needs to move fast to rescue the universities from total collapse.

"If the universities shut down, where will [Kenyan] professors come from?" he posed.

"We've turned many places into universities. I'm not sure that expansion model is sustainable. Let's come with an expansion policy that would guarantee quality education," said Sunkuli.

"One way to go, is to stop the proliferation of university branches in the country," he added.

Seme MP James Nyikal echoed Sunkuli's sentiments.

"If we are not careful, public universities will collapse. The gold standard has been public universities, but now things are deteriorating to the point where children do not even want to attend public universities, and we must not allow that to continue," he said.

Education Cabinet Secretary (CS) Ezekiel Machogu recently found himself on the receiving end after he suggested that the government was contemplating the withdrawal of funding to public universities.

Machogu would later say that he was quoted out of context and that he meant the universities should embrace alternative sources of income besides government funding.

The minister said this financial year, the government will allocate Sh50 billion toward university funding and Sh15.8 billion toward students' loan kitty, HELB.