Funding university education need not raise controversy

Unison school of Hair dressing and Beauty grandaunts during their1st graduation ceremony held at Kakamega golf hotel on April 20, 2023. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Let me start by being nostalgic: When we reported to university in the good old days, I noted that in the first semester it was easy to differentiate those from a hustling background from the rest.

From hairstyles to attire and even walking style, but by the end of the first year those differences vanished, except for accent and mannerism that echo throughout life.

The trick was ‘boom’, money given to students by government for upkeep. It was seen as free money - food and accommodation was provided for through a loan that we paid after graduation. Jobs were easy  to get then.

Any psychologist would support such a system; remember Maslow’s hierarchy? With basic needs taken care of, the students should have focused on higher needs such as research and self actualisation. But more importantly, this system allowed a melting pot where students from different socio- economic backgrounds learned together and broke class barriers. Think of the top three men in Kenya, president, deputy president and prime cabinet secretary. They all went to a public university despite their mixed economic background.

Then came reforms in higher education and students started paying fees, buying food in cafeterias and living in hostels outside the universities. The argument was that we made education accessible to more Kenyans. The other argument was that accommodation  was not the core mandate of universities.

Government funding was not automatic and those who could pay for their education did.  Another emerging thought was that basic education matters more than higher education, and more money was shifted there.

Entrepreneurs got in to build hostels. Some politicians even argued that one of the advantages of having a university in their counties was that locals could build hostels. They rarely talked about the positive spillovers such as innovations emanating from such universities.

Entrepreneurs also built new universities. We moved from one university to almost 70 universities, but one contentious issue has remained: how do we fund them?  We now have the new funding formula based on one’s vulnerability. This determines how much scholarship, grants, loans or self funding you shall get in the ‘bucket’. The key issue is getting the data to determine which class of funding you fall into. We hope this will be objective and not politicised.

Identifying the needy is the key plank on which this new model rests and succeeds. Hope it recognises the sacrifice of the parents. The second contentious issue is pricing the university courses. Universities should not shy away from giving the true cost. If you ever got a bill from a private hospital, you know how to get the true costs including a charge for changing  beddings. 

I fear that universities could give lower costs to attract more students. Another bigger worry is that parents and their children might only focus on cost and forget other important factors such as location, experiences and market sentiments.

Let’s not forget that the most reputable and sought-after universities are also very expensive. Harvard ‘s admission rate is about four per cent, check its tuition.  And why do we equate price to quality in all other services and goods except education? Why is accommodation cost being left out? Have we forgotten Maslow’s hierarchy? 

Without being prejudiced, going through University of Nairobi in the city ‘shakes’ you up and gives you a first mover advantage. You are removed from your comfort zone, exposed to competition and get close to the job market.

That will not apply to a student operating from her or his home in the countryside. In higher education, bringing services close to the people is counter productive in the long run.

Exposure and new experience are often more valuable than the content that you learn, which is often uniform using the same textbooks. That is why some universities have introduced a study abroad module to expose the students.  It’s sad the University of East Africa no longer exists ; it had campuses in three East African countries. Compare a student who studies in another country and one who studies in the same county from kindergarten to university. Whether it’s in the job market or entrepreneurship, you will notice a difference.  

Exposure and new experience will keep face-to-face learning alive despite online learning catalysed by Covid-19.

Does the new funding formula consider the student’s experience? I would suggest that when funding students we incentivise them to leave their counties.

You can increase grants or scholarship if the student is going far away from his or her home.

Let’s be real; life is more expensive in the urban areas and students in urban universities should have urbanisation factored. Don’t we have employees in Nairobi getting higher house allowances and per diem?

Can we have the formula used in allocating money published just like that on revenue allocation? We can interrogate it and suggest improvements.

How about an education lottery to fund higher education just like the envisaged one for sports? Or better, reduce the proposed housing levy to 1.5 per cent and give the other 1.5 per cent to education? Can we give companies some tax incentives if they fund scholarships? 

There is no doubt that we need more educated men and women with the right skills, knowledge and attitudes. They will not only solve problems they never created but also innovate and come up with new ideas that can be turned into enterprises. After all, the youth and their exuberance is one of country’s greater natural resources, more valuable than oil. 

As we  focus on student fees, let’s remember education can be a business, an export. Why can’t we make Kenya an education hub with students from neighbouring countries coming to our universities? Is education not Australia’s number two export?