The minimum university entry grade will remain at C+ despite the drop in the number of candidates scoring top marks in the 2016 national high school exam, putting private universities on the path to a student enrolment crisis.
Only 88,929 candidates scored C+ and above in the tightly monitored Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam — a number that public universities can comfortably absorb.
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The Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) began the selection for degree courses, which gives public universities first priority, on Monday.
Last year KUCCPS picked 74,389 students (who sat the 2015 KCSE examination) to join public universities and an additional 10,000 to join private colleges with government support.
If a similar number is selected this year, public institutions will absorb almost all “qualified” students, leaving their private counterparts in an admissions quandary.
John Muraguri, the KUCCPS chief executive, said private universities have no option but to adjust to the consequences of policy change and innovate as they prepare to pick their 2017 first years from the “smaller pool” of qualified students.
“It is clear from the number that if the capacity stretches a bit this year, we shall be able to accommodate all those who scored C+ and above as government-sponsored,” said Mr Muraguri.
“Private universities may not get as many students as they are used to but they will have a small pool to pick from. They will, for instance, have to focus on getting students from previous cohorts who haven’t joined university as well as those we pick to enter the public system but opt for private institutions.”
Students apply to join public and private universities (for limited slots) and then wait for KUCCPS to assign them the courses based on their KCSE performance, a process that is solely dependent on available capacity in public colleges.
Selection by May
This year’s selection kicked off this week and is to be complete by May, said Mr Muraguri.
In the past, many candidates who scored C+ and above were unable to get admission to public universities due to capacity constraints, forcing them to pursue their career ambitions at private universities or at public universities as self-sponsored students.
The decision not to lower the pass mark despite a sharp dip in performance has shifted the numbers game in favour of public institutions – who will also have to search harder for students to fill the module II capacity they have built over the years.
Simon Gicharu, the founder and chairman of Mount Kenya University, acknowledged the extraordinary admissions challenge that the latest KCSE results have presented to private universities but added that they are surmountable.
“This year, private universities have to step up in order to fill the admission spaces by for instance targeting the backlog of past students who attained the minimum entry marks but were not admitted,” he said, adding that diploma students who want to continue climbing the academic ladder, also qualify.
“At MKU, we are already doing this,” Mr Gicharu.
The Economic Survey 2016 indicates that Kenya had a total of 23 public universities in the 2015/2016 academic year compared to 30 private ones.
Enrolment in public institutions stood at 512,924, more than five times the 85,889 in private universities.
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Mr Gicharu said that private universities will have to aggressively start providing and improving “market-driven courses like engineering and medicine” to remain competitive in the long term.
Ruthie Rono, the deputy-vice chancellor in charge of academic affairs at the United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa), downplayed the severity of the admissions crisis, insisting that private institutions will rely on quality and differentiation of courses to attract and register the targeted number of freshmen this year.
“The market freely chooses to come to USIU because of what we offer in terms of the courses, learning material and the quality of teaching,” Prof Rono said even as she insisted that the university is supportive of the government’s effort to ensure that universities get quality students who are well prepared for higher learning.
But even as private and public universities wait to see how the selection process will pan out, Education secretary Fred Matiang’i insisted that Kenya has capacity to absorb about 400,000 candidates into technical institutions.
That is 85,196 shy of the number of students who did not make the C+ cut-off mark.
In 2015, total enrolment in technical and vocational educational training institutions (TVET) stood at 155,176 compared to the previous year’s 148,142.
Dr Matiang'i on Monday said that the government had asked students who did not qualify to join university to join TVET institutions.
“We must shift from the populist view of white-collar jobs which are highly pegged on degree qualifications, and focus more on skills-oriented approaches that equip our youth with practical skill sets that match their aspirations and can help our country become a middle-income industrialised nation,” he said.