It has not been a good week for parents with students in public universities. This is after university administrators meeting in Mombasa resolved that raising fees and ensuring all arrears are paid, is the sure way out of their financial quagmire.
Other options to resuscitate the struggling institutions include increasing government funding and staff rationalisation. The public universities are currently reeling from Sh56 billion debt accruing from unpaid staff pensions and statutory deductions such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF).
The institutions of higher learning have for years struggled financially and it was only a matter of time that they would reach a crisis. That time has come and they had to face their realities in the face and seek long term solutions. A bold approach is needed urgently to stem the decline.
Last week’s meeting brought together all vice-chancellors of public and private universities, principals of constituent colleges, and government agencies involved in funding higher education.
It is expected that proposals from the high-level gathering will largely inform the final recommendations of the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms. Increasing fees and pushing for payment of all arrears looks like the low hanging fruit for university managers. According to the vice chancellors, state funding should be increased to 80 per cent of the Differentiated Unit Cost (DUC) up from the present 48 per cent.
However, the government has been reluctant to pump in more money to get the institutions due to the tight fiscal space within which it is operating. It is instead blaming university managers for the predicament they find themselves in.
But even as the institutions consider fee increment, they should also be alive to the fact that many Kenyans are similarly suffering from harsh economic times. Even those willing to pay may not afford it now.
While the government is finding it difficult to offer subsidies to those students who need them and fund operations of universities, the solution is not to abandon them since such a move is likely to roll back gains made in achieving 100 per cent transition policy.
As a start, there is need for the Universities Fund and the Higher Education Loans Board to ensure a thorough audit of all admissions so that only needy students benefit from government loans.
As President William Ruto noted a while back, it cannot be that parents finance the education of their children in high cost basic institutions then turn to government to fund their university education.
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On the same stroke, it is time universities stepped up incoming generating activities. They should now seek research funds from willing donors and collaborate in financially viable projects. This should give them some financial wiggle room.