How private universities are coping with higher education reforms

Mt Kenya University founder Simon Gicharu
Private universities have in the past been spoilt for choice in terms of the number of students leaving secondary school and enrolling in their institutions. They have had a large pool of potential students that qualified to join university but could not find room in public universities. This pool has however dried up over the last two years, with students that scored the minimum grade of a C+ and above finding room in public universities and also Government sponsorship. Financial Standard talked to Simon Gicharu, the founder Mt Kenya University about how private universities are coping with the reforms that threaten a major revenue stream for the institutions.

How have the reforms affected private universities?

Private universities have been compelled to relook into their models in a bid to keep attracting students. It is not business as usual for universities and you will notice that many privately run institutions are aggressively marketing their courses, which was not the case in the past. With the number of students qualifying for university dwindling, the private institutions are looking at enhancing their degree programmes as well as improving on the diploma and certificate courses to continue to attract students.

Has MKU experienced a decline in the number of students that are enrolling at the university?

We had expected the numbers to go down in 2017 but it surprisingly went up by six per cent.  There is a huge chunk of students who still prefer private universities and these include those who turned down the admission to public universities because they were admitted to study a course that was not of their choice as well as those looking for diploma courses.

What are some of the investments that make the university attractive to more students?

We are consolidating the gains that we have made. Instead of investing in more campuses, we are putting more money into improving and equipping the campuses that are already in place. We have made a substantial investment in equipment for science-based courses and we have just brought in equipment worth Sh30 million from India to equip our laboratories. We have also invested Sh50 million in a performing arts centre that will enable students to explore their talents while pursuing a university education.

Are there any gains for private universities from the reforms in education made by the Government?

Though the reforms seen in the education sector might appear a risk for privately run varsities as well as the self-sponsored programmes among their public counterparts, the move by the government to increase spending on primary and secondary education has had the impact of leaving parents with more money that can be invested in their children’s tertiary education. The scenario in the past was that parents would prioritise paying fees for primary and secondary education but with some of the burden taken up by the Government, we expect parents to increasingly have more money to spend on university education.

Mt Kenya University has entered into numerous agreements with other institutions including international universities, are these pacts adding value to the university?

We have for some time now been looking at who we can partner both locally and internationally. The university has identified different institutions and signed memoranda of understanding (MOU). We are now reviewing these MOUs with a view to taking advantage of the agreements, deepening our relations with the institutions and hope to see students go to other countries and universities for exchange programmes. We have also been able to activate some of the agreements and one of these is closer home. We have a pact with the Thika Level 5 hospital where we have made joint investments in some facilities and our students are able to use them while the hospital, as well as the patients, benefit from improved infrastructure.

There has been a debate on the move by devolved units requiring organisations to give preferential treatment to locals when hiring. Your take?

I would want to see a situation where people are not segregated but we, as Kenyans can do things jointly. As an institution, we have students coming from all over the country. The county is also fairly metropolitan and the residents come from different parts of the country. It would thus make sense if there was more collaboration between the county and its people as well as other counties and work towards integration rather than divided country. I would actually advocate for human resource exchange among counties.

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Mt Kenya UniversitySimon Gicharuprivate universities