Special Report: When things fell apart for top universities

University of Nairobi Towers. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Even before it was put on the International Monetary Fund’s operating table, the University of Nairobi sought to remedy its financial health by announcing radical changes that saw fees increased and some departments merged or disbanded.

The decision by the university to streamline its operations has ignited protest leading to the suspension of the restructuring process. But it looks like trying to stop the inevitable.

The IMF is back with its surgical knife. One of its patients are the three largest public universities that are expected to undergo radical restructuring that will see tens of thousands of staff lose their jobs.

The National Treasury is expected to cut off State departments that are nothing but deadweight, absorbing much from the Exchequer and bringing nothing into the State coffers. Most of them are even struggling to pay salaries and remit statutory deductions such as the National Hospital Insurance Fund and pensions.

Last year, Moi University scrapped 30 departments as it grappled with a Sh2.7 billion debt.

Last week, Moi University Vice Chancellor Isaac Kosgei said the college would scale down on the number of its satellite campuses to become financially sustainable.

“We have set in motion a number of reforms to put the university back to a good, healthy financial position. We will continue to review our academic programmes to align to the government’s Big Four agenda and Vision 2030,” he said during its 41st virtual graduation ceremony on Friday.

Last year, as the country was ravaged by adverse effects of Covid-19 pandemic, several universities including University of Nairobi, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kisii University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, Egerton University and Kabianga University wrote to National Treasury requesting additional funding.

The universities had cumulatively requested Sh20 billion additional funding to get them out of their financial woes as well as cushion them from debt.

The universities want the government to support them and help them recover from the financial effects of the pandemic. The total statutory deductions debt owed by universities by September 2020 is Sh37.3 billion.

The National Treasury in July announced it had completed a financial health check on 18 parastatals that unearthed a cumulative five-year financial shortfall of Sh70 billion, which means that a good number of the parastatals are in the red with liabilities exceeding their assets. Consequently, National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani said the government will undertake a rigorous restructuring of the State corporations.

Infographics: The Standard Checkpoint

The report fingered parastatals that offer social services including the four largest public universities and Kenyatta National Hospital which have been draining the national coffers.

The most affected institutions are the University of Nairobi, Moi University, Egerton University, Technical University of Kenya, and Kenyatta University. Maseno University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology too have nothing to celebrate.

There are a lot of factors that had led to the current financial crisis.

It is the decision by the government to sponsor all students who attained a C plus and above to universities in 2017 that worsened the financial woes of these institutions of higher learning.

That year, Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) had no cut off points, unlike other years. As such private and public universities missed out on learners who would have otherwise enrolled under Privately Sponsored Students Programme (PSSP) paying an average of Sh100,000 every academic year.

Some of these students were placed in private universities as well. Instead of the six figures the university would get from PSSP students who did not get direct government sponsorship, they had to be content with capitation of Sh120,000.

This, combined with the stringent crackdown by Commission for University Education, crippled the institutions.

By 2019, 57 public universities campuses had closed their doors as part of the ongoing reforms. The reforms were argued on grounds that universities have a bloated workforce comprising majorly of non-teaching staff while some are teaching unaccredited programmes.

Laikipia University closed six campuses, while Moi University closed four.

Early this year, the CS called on the institutions to cut their expenditure for non-teaching staff who he said averages at 70 per cent. He said universities have so many supporting staff with few professors who attract funding.

“We are wasting money on human resource at the university. It is the professor who defines the university and its strength. But some of us have decided it is the professor who must go first. Then we have some many other people whom we call supporting staff –supporting who?” he posed during a recent event.

He added: “The universities must reform. Are we getting value for money in our universities? The answer is no.”

A report by the Commission for University Education in 2019 cited Tom Mboya University with the leading number of unapproved courses at 25 followed by Garissa University(10), Alupe University(10), Great Lakes University of Kisumu(8) among others.

Unapproved courses

The report reported 133 unapproved courses at the time. Some of them are Bachelor of Arts (Geography), Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Arts in Counselling.

It was also revealed by some of the courses do not attract any application which is part of the reason behind Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha’s push to merge some courses.

Moi University in 2020 announced the closure of Kericho and Nakuru campuses due to reduced number of students.

And early this year, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology resolved to close four of its satellite campuses in Kisumu, Nairobi, Kapsabet and Mumias.

Magoha’s move to merge universities was reluctantly appended by vice-chancellors last year. The idea behind this was to discourage the opening of new universities providing the same courses.

This should in turn encourage specialisation which was initially the tradition in institutions of higher learning. For example, Egerton University is known more for agriculture courses while Technical University of Nairobi for mechanical and engineering. Kenya has 74 universities, 31 being public.

While speaking during 20th Maseno University graduation in April this year, Magoha said the number of students an institution has should be used to judge how good it is.

“Students coming to your university on their own may be as a result of how fine your faculty is. But you will have to decide at one stage which faculties you want to retain, how many students you want to have,” he said. “Even the Harvard(s) of this world, if they were to tell you the number of students they have you will actually be shocked.”

He said the number of students must be in relation to faculty. “Like in medicine, we have insisted that the ratio have to be correct. You cannot take more students than you can teach. That is what will bring the quality of university education that we want,” he said.