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Funding cutbacks will kill ‘dream courses’, say VCs

By Augustine Oduor | September 11th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

An uproar has greeted a proposal to selectively fund courses that the government gives priority, with stakeholders saying all programmes are important.

The plan that is being pushed by vice-chancellors and the Universities Fund will also extend to students in private universities, with consideration given to the institutions that have the capacity to offer prescribed courses.

If adopted, students who apply to universities with a strong foundation in science, agriculture or technology will only receive funding if they are admitted to study these courses.

The Universities Fund is a government agency mandated to finance universities. The details are contained in a document titled Reforms on the University Sector and Research.

University students, private universities and VCs of a few public universities have, however, faulted the proposal that would limit funding to learners enrolled in select courses.

The Kenya University Students Organisation (Kuso), yesterday said it would petition Parliament over the move.

Kuso President Anthony Manyara said all university courses are relevant to the students pursuing them.

“You cannot say courses that were relevant last year are now mediocre. What happens to those who already did those courses?” he asked.

Manyara warned that labelling some courses ‘useless’ would affect graduates’ employment chances.

“We don’t train for Kenya only, but to compete internationally. We may not be relevant here, but we can be international if the training is to an international standard.”

Manyara said while some of the courses may not fall within the criteria set by the government, they could be relevant elsewhere, adding: “Let us be careful not to jeopardise the future of students in a country that has high levels of joblessness.”

Quality standards

According to the union president, the solution lies in allocating additional resources to universities. 

“First, increase funding to universities. We have realised that VCs are selfish and want to capitalise on money going towards administration. Funding must not be selective.”

University of Nairobi Students Association President Anne Mvurya said the proposal was “outrageous”. 

“If they feel that some courses are not important to society or country, why do they make them available for students to select? Mounting a course is not a simple matter. It goes through various stages, with deep thought put into every stage by each university’s organs. How can one wake up and term a course less important?”

Commission for University Education Chief Executive Mwenda Ntarangwi had said universities would be required to align their programmes with strategic sectors that address national development priorities.

He said priority courses are those that will help realise Vision 2030 pillars, the Big Four Agenda and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Four on accessible, relevant and equitable education.

Kenya Association of Private Universities Chairman Kisau Mumo yesterday urged the government to pump more money into the Universities Fund.

“With adequate funding, the Universities Fund will develop criteria of funding all courses under the differentiated unit cost that gives weight to each course,” he said, adding that the competitiveness of the courses would be determined by the quality standards of each institution.

“We see corruption everywhere because we have ignored some courses on soft skills. This is because there is a lack of critical values that are in the heart, and so we cannot say that some courses are more important.”

Mumo said there must be a clear separation between policy-making and funding of programmes.

“Let the government make policies and allow an independent institution, such as the Universities Fund, to determine funding criteria in consultation with stakeholders.”

Universities Academic Staff Union Secretary-General Constantine Wasonga said the move would affect its members, “and we shall strongly advise in coming days”.

Vice-chancellors of public universities who requested anonymity said students should not be discouraged from pursuing their dream courses just because certain programmes do not meet the government’s criteria of importance. The contentious document that has split the VCs advised that funding be based on available resources.

“Students who qualify with C+ and above but have not been qualified for government support to pursue degree programmes should then be free to either join TVET programmes, where they would be sponsored by the government or join universities as privately sponsored students, whether as Module II or in private universities,” read the proposed changes.

But some university managers said this proposal must be interrogated further as it may lock out deserving students.

“They must focus on funding students who have the need because we may end up funding students with capable parents just because they have enrolled for priority courses,” said one VC.

Those opposed to the proposal said identification of priority courses remains a sticky issue. 

“How do you spend so many years developing a course then turn back and say it is not a priority area?” asked one VC.

Not popular

University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Stephen Kiama said reforming the curriculum is part of his agenda, which he is executing in consultation with stakeholders.

“As a university, we have grown over the years but funding has not matched the growth. If a course has only 20 students, it means it is not popular. Sustaining such a course is very expensive,” said Kiama.

He said the university has kick-started a review of the curriculum to interrogate the matter.

“If a course is not sustainable, we cannot have it.”

The University of Nairobi has scrapped more than 40 courses after some programmes failed to attract any students in the last five years. An analysis of placement data for 2018 by Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service revealed that many other universities do not attract enough students to their courses.

 


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