Inside William Ruto's broad proposals to fix universities financial crisis

Egerton University staff picketing at the university graduation squared on October 12, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Proposals mooted under former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime to fix universities mess seem to have been dropped.

Instead, President William Ruto’s administration is putting in place new plans to try rescue the sinking institutions. Three Education Cabinet Secretaries – Dr Fred Matiang’i, Prof George Magoha and Amina Mohammed ­­– who served in the Uhuru administration had made wide-ranging recommendations on how best the public institutions of higher learning could be revived from their deathbeds.

Among these were increasing of tuition fees, merging of universities or campuses, reducing staff numbers and dropping some academic programmes.

Under his reign, the late Prof Magoha proposed right-sizing staff, rationalisation of programmes, consolidation of colleges and a freeze on the establishment of new universities and satellite campuses.

In 2017, Dr Matiang’i froze staff recruitment and directed that some be retired as the government pushed for a contractual hiring.

In his 2019/2020 Budget statement, National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich said the government had approved the reforms plan, which would include merger or closure of some universities and university campuses.

And now, President Ruto has opted for a series of interventions among them waiving of debts to settle the universities chronic financial crisis.

Universities Fund Chief Executive Geoffrey Monari says the institutions had accrued, in a period of seven years, Sh61 billion debt due to limited funding and source of revenue.

The plans includes the new students funding method unveiled by President Ruto, which seeks to support all learners while making well-off families to pay more.

Monari terms the new funding model “the start of stopping the leakage”. “The first move is to stop the growing debt that was occasioned by inadequate funding.”

The Fund says the interventions include waivers on penalties and interests on defaulted Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) deductions, and hopes the taxman will eventually waive the arrears.

For the defaulted pensions remissions, debts owed to part-time lecturers and pending bills, the government is finding ways to pay “as soon as possible”.

Part of the intervention will be using part of the Sh20.3 billion additional funding to settle some of the debts.

Data management system

Monari says they plan to put in place a tracking system to monitor students admissions and their academic progress.

The system will also monitor programmes and provide the data to the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) to guide future admissions.

“We are putting in place a data management system, which is almost complete, so that we can monitor the progress of the student, when they graduate, monitor academic programmes and this will even help KUCCPS moving forward to advice on the placement,” says Monari.

Admission will now be conducted only once a year. “We are streamlining to ensure all admissions are carried out in August and September to ensure it aligns with the government budgetary cycle. What has been happening is that once KCSE is released, the universities would start admissions and ask the government to fund and yet the government cycle is not aligned.” For universities struggling with learning resources such as labs and libraries, the agency proposes that they share resources with nearby institutions.

“You look for example at the University of Nairobi, it has campuses all over the city. Some of the universities are very near each other and you don’t need to create extra labs,” says Monari.

The government is also pushing public universities diversify revenue streams. One way to make money is tapping into the foreign student market and commercialisation of research..

“With this, universities are going to be more independent because they will ensure that they get more students and they can plan much better instead of going to look for funds at the National Treasury,” Monari says.

“We are also saying that for the idle assets that universities have, we need to discuss and find a way to have them generate money.”

In the same vein, the institutions should package executive programmes for the convenience of professionals who have fulltime jobs.

And universities will also be expected to take an active role in consultancies. Monari says they are pushing for at least 50 per cent of government consultancy to be conducted by universities.

“Unofficially, these consultancies are done by university employees just that it is done at a private capacity.”

The Universities Fund also notes the need for universities to adopt the public private partnership financing model. For example, in the construction of hostels, Monari argues that the institutions can use the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model.

“We believe there is no point of government to build hostels yet there are private developers ready to work with the government,” he says.

On cost cutting, Monari proposes the use of solar energy, citing Strathmore University. “One of the key costs that universities incur is electricity.”

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