Varsities feel the heat in double intake planSunday May 09 2010
Public universities are headed for a fresh admissions crisis as the government moves to level the playing field for poor students, who are losing the job market race to their wealthier colleagues who can afford higher education in private universities.
While the less wealthy, who can only afford the subsidised public university education, are forced to wait for two years to start a degree programme, their richer counterparts enrol in the more expensive private institutions soon after the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination results are announced.
This early entry into college has ultimately created a transitional gap of between two and six months that ultimately gives them a head-start over their public university colleagues in the competitive job market.
Higher Education minister, William Ruto’s, announcement last week that he intends to change the situation sent university administrators scouring for answers on how the gap could be closed without compromising the quality of learning.
“In many cases, by the time the regular students (government sponsored) join university, those enrolled under the parallel degree programmes are usually gearing up for their third year of study. “This is an inequality that should not be tolerated,” said Mr Ruto.
In numbers, such a move would see the seven public universities admit an extra 20,000 students annually, bringing to 40,000 the number of freshmen joining the institutions under the regular programme for at least two years.
The last double admission was in 1985 as the government moved to clear a backlog caused by long university closures after the 1982 coup.
Those admissions have overtime been blamed for the strain on physical and academic resources that universities are grappling with as much as the conversion of institutions into enterprise centres, that channel more of their resources towards parallel rather than regular programmes.
Vice chancellors and educationists who spoke to Business Daily warned that the plan could come at a heavy cost to taxpayers and continuing students.
“This plan requires serious thought and a new financing model since it has the potential of improving access at the expense of quality,” said Prof Raphael Munavu, a former Moi University Vice Chancellor, adding: “This is the time to think of introducing unit costs in universities.”
Mr Ruto tasked technocrats at the ministry to form a team of university vice chancellors and educationists to look into ways of resolving the administrative and other bottlenecks that cause delays in admission.
“The committee must unlock the backlog and give us a way forward,” said the minister last week.
Higher Education permanent secretary Crispus Kiamba said the matter was being treated with urgency.
“This must be dealt with cautiously with a view to improving university education.”
Kenya’s universities are already facing a credibility test arising from their offering of courses that have not been registered with the sector watchdog – the Commission for Higher Education.
Educationists blamed the ongoing dilution of the quality of Kenyan degrees on uncontrolled expansion in the last 10 years that has seen public universities open campuses in some of the remotest locations in the country, throwing into doubts the quality of teaching in the units.
Though the number of qualified lecturers has been growing, it lags far behind the student enrolment rate, forcing many universities to appoint unqualified staff to academic positions.
The University Academic Staff Union (UASU) data indicates that there 9,000 lecturers in both public and private universities, up from 7,000 four years ago.
During the same period, student enrolment grew from 91,541 to 130,000 –– a 42 per cent jump.
Public universities have enrolled 100,000 of the students, nearly half of them — 48000 — under the parallel programme where students pay the full cost of the courses they undertake.
Proponents of the double intake plan however argue that while it would require massive financial commitments, it could increase access and reduce inequality in Kenya’s education system.
Demand for education services and the subsequent need for expansion by institutions is fuelled by thousands of working Kenyans seeking additional qualifications to cushion them against a changing labour market.
Failure to adequately finance a double intake could for example trigger a wave of university fee increments as institutions seek extra money to support larger student populations and adjust to the reality of diminishing government subsidies.
A fresh rise in university fees has the potential of making Kenya’s university education the most expensive in the region, posing the danger of mass flight of capital as parents seek affordable options in places such as South Africa.
University administrators said a double intake would require a big shift in the way they currently raise funds in favour of a wide mix involving use of instruments such as private capital to finance expansion and growth.
That would have a double impact of helping wean public universities of heavy reliance on short-term borrowing that has left them with yawning budget gaps and ramped up the cost of higher education.
It is estimated that public universities currently need at least Sh100 billion to finance their programmes, meaning additional students could only make matters worse.
“The proposal could work with effective expansion of facilities and recruitment of extra lecturers,” said Prof George Magoha, the vice chancellor at the University of Nairobi. “It would require a rollout period of at least 3-5 years to be effective,” he said.
The plan could also send Higher Education officials reading through proposals by a World Bank-backed consultancy, which in February crafted a new financing model to nearly double university fees and significantly increase interest payable on tuition loans from government.
The team of technocrats, hired by the government and the World Bank to look into the financing of higher education, proposed that students pay more fees and Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) levies, higher interest on its tuition loans to give universities access to money they need to stop ongoing degeneration in the quality of learning.
Proponents of the proposal reckon Treasury will have to allocate extra cash to public universities to help shore up their revenue base, bankroll the students and improve quality.
The seven public universities have in the current financial year received Sh23 billion and are set to receive at least Sh1 billion more, according to the Research, Innovation and Technology sector medium term expenditure framework for 2010/11–2012/13 report released by Treasury last month.
“For UoN, the allocation is normally 38 per cent of what the university needs,” said Prof Magoha.
Benjamin Cheboi, the Helb chief executive officer estimates that the agency would require an extra Sh1 billion to provide loans to the additional students.
“This is a noble plan but it will come with a heavy price tag that Kenyans must be ready to pay,” he said and called for a phased roll-out to ease unnecessary strain on public universities and Helb.
Helb will also have to look for additional sources of financing and re-think its fund-raising strategies to meet an annual loan demand of Sh15 billion in the next four years as enrolment soars.
Helb has mainly relied on hand-outs from Treasury and recoveries from past borrowers to finance its operations.
Prof Olive Mugenda, the Kenyatta University Vice Chancellor reckons that the newly established 13 University Colleges could be improved to help ease the backlog although gradually.
“Expanding infrastructure is one thing that the Government must consider negotiating with universities on if the plan is to work effectively work,” she said.