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Varsity funding: Who will bell the cat?

By XN Iraki | October 17th 2021

Prof Paul Musili Wambua, the University of Embu Chancellor Confers Dr Margaret Gikuhi with an honorary doctorate degree for her outstanding achievement as an educator with an impeccable record of distinguished public service spanning 40 years. [Muriithi Mugo,Standard]

A recent article in one of the local dailies focused on the funding of university education. The crux of the matter is whether the government should place State-funded students in private universities.

This is a contentious issue and being a staff in a public university, I may not be objective but will give it a try.

Before we get emotional, let’s find out how students are funded in higher education elsewhere.

In the US, students get subsidised loans and go to their university of choice if they qualify. They can supplement that with their own funds or scholarships, grants, assistantships and work-study schemes. Canada is similar.

Universities set their fees depending on supply and demand, with elite universities being more expensive than lower-end or community colleges. The demand for courses determines the fees, for instance medicine vs Egyptology.

In Europe, some countries such as Germany offer free university education but students pay for accommodation and other services. In others like the UK, you pay tuition fees but loans are available both for living expenses and tuition depending on your needs.

In China, the government pays for higher education with a recent shift to scholarships based on national needs. In South Korea, both private and public universities get State funding, with less for private. Most universities are private in South Korea.

In Australia, students get loans which they repay when they reach a certain earning threshold. In Kenya, it’s cost-sharing with the State paying the bulk of the cost - close to the South African model.

Students can get loans through the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) if they apply. Does Helb have tested data on students’ economic status?

The logic in State-funding is that a good education remains the conveyor belt to upward mobility.

That belief is regionally specific. It’s taken less seriously in Kiambu compared with say, Kakamega. That takes us back to the economics of higher education. Is education subject to the laws of supply and demand? It is, but the government comes in with subsidies to ensure affordability. This leads to oversupply because the price, read fees, is low. Surprised that our universities are overcrowded?

That might be contested until you put all universities together. Some students would not go to university if they were paying the true cost of university education.

One observation is that enrollment went up after the introduction of fees payment in the 1990s and self-sponsorship (parallel) programmes because higher education was underpriced, thanks to subsidies.

A higher population would have led to an increase in demand and higher fees. Lower fees can be explained in another way; 75 per cent of university students study social sciences which are “affordable” to parents and the State.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses are more expensive. Both government and the private sector shy away from them. This is one reason why channelling State funds to private universities is contentious.

Why leave a STEM student in a public university or Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and fund social science in private universities? Throw bricks to me if you want, but economic growth is largely driven by STEM.

The State never used to fund students in private universities until 2016. The thinking was that private and public universities would compete for students who vote for quality with their enrollment.

Universities would then mount marketable courses to attract students and their money.

The problem is that what is marketable to students might not be marketable to the nation.

Sometimes just a name can make a difference. Think of management and strategic management or political science vs public administration.

Limited knowledge

What if the market is not efficient or has asymmetrical information? Students have limited knowledge of university courses and their marketability.

When a university says a course is marketable, who can verify that? It is only after graduation that a student can confirm, often too late.

Marketability should not be the basis of placing students in a public or private university. We don’t have data like that given by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics projecting the fastest growing and declining jobs in the next ten tears.

The placement should be based on national strategic interests. Think of the Big Four agenda, Vision 2030 and African Union Agenda 2063. Is that not how China, Japan and Asian tigers catalysed their economic growth?

Why should we have under-utilised public universities then place students in private universities? Is that not subsidising private universities?

Why not extend that to private secondary and primary schools to be fair to all investors in education?

Why was Inoorero University not subsidised? More poignantly, is that since private universities take government-sponsored students, they should be under the same rules as public universities from salary scales to the recruitment of their staff?

It’s instructive that two or three private universities do not take government-sponsored students. That is forward-thinking in my opinion.

Where do we go from here? The higher education sector is in a state of flux as universities compete for State-funding. Does this make them lazy for “failing to seek alternative sources of funds like commercialising patents or spawning companies?

How about using lotteries, floating education bonds or even an education tax? What of philanthropies?

Once we get enough money, we can worry about sharing it among universities. The thinking is that when students are given money, they can take it where they want, public or private university. We need clear criteria on when a student should transfer to a private university beyond ill-defined marketability.

Does placing 15,000 students in TVETs say something about the marketability of university courses?

We should ask which skills are required to achieve our national, continental or global goals without forgetting the students’ interests. Finally, should we have three categories of universities; national, county and private universities?

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