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Increase capitation to save public universities from collapse

OPINION
By Agumba Ndaloh | October 21st 2021

The Moi University Main Campus Administration block [Courtesy]

Public universities are going through dire financial straits.

Government support has dwindled since 2003. Matters worsened after the elimination of cheating in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations. The reforms saw a downward trajectory in the number of students qualifying for university. This has seen all those with the minimum entry grade C-plus admitted to universities.

Prior to the reforms, competition for university entry in the privately sponsored programmes was stiff. Today, a student in the privately sponsored programme is nearly non-existent. This was the chief source of income for public universities; not any more.

Today, public universities wallow in debts. Many, were they not government entities, would have been declared insolvent, property auctioned and closed. This fiscal year, for example, money from the government has been substantially reduced yet the number of students admitted to the institutions has hit the roof. What miracle does the government expect university leadership to engage to stay afloat? 

Yes, there are many factors that contribute to these financial problems, among them corruption, bloated workforce, poor leadership and resistance to change. However, low capitation forms the bulwark of the financial woes. It’s unfortunate that the government expects the institutions to provide quality services while it gives them peanuts. 

Public universities leadership is going through a nightmare trying to make ends meet. Payment of salaries and statutory deductions from staff is a big challenge. Under employment is common. In some, even the non-academic personnel are few, thus heavily overworked.

Coupled with poor terms of service, one need not scratch their head over the massive exodus of talent to the public service. It’s hard to expect quality in such an environment. The truth is that most staff are demoralised. On several occasions, some vice chancellors have had the temerity to ask the government to address the issue, while many say this privately for fear of annoying 'Moses'.

Unfortunately, the answer from the pernickety ministry has not been helpful. Universities leadership has been asked to think of alternative sources of income other than support from the Exchequer; a tall order. The only answer is increasing fees for students.

Although sensible, the truth is that any increment of fees today will lock out many students. Those of us in these institutions are witnesses to the struggles most students go through to pay the paltry sums charged for tuition and other fees. Many students are living in squalid conditions.

For now, we should put the issue of fee increment away from the options of ameliorating the financial quagmire in public universities. Supported, public universities have many low lying fruits. The issue of consultancy is worth being pursued. However, this demands capacity building of staff. Unfortunately, this is something that an insolvent body can rarely fathom. Other income generating activities can also be pursued.

Universities the world over are having their leadership decentralised while here, we are thinking of centralising management to government honchos. What a shame.

The government should feel obliged to increase funding to public universities as a matter of urgency to avert their collapse. Many countries support their public universities financially and materially. Emulate them and bring sheen to this sector.

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