Varsity graduates caught up in Sh31bn pending bills nightmare

DN Elimu 1901 A

Education CS Ezekiel Machogu and PS Belio Kipsang at Bomas of Kenya on January 19, 2024. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Barrington Gesimba was overjoyed when he graduated with honours for a Bachelor of Science in Applied Computer Science from Daystar University on November 10, 2023. The ceremony was a watershed moment in his career and his entry into the job market.

However, he has been unable to move forward because he lacks the document he worked for four years to obtain. His degree certificate has been withheld, along with many others, until the government clears the debt it owes the university.

“It’s difficult to apply for jobs. You can go through all the stages of an interview, but when it gets to presenting your certificates, you’ve got nothing, and people think you’re hiding something. It’s unfair on us,” he said.

His story mirrors those of thousands of students in private universities whose fate hangs in the balance following a dispute over payment of their tuition fees by the government in a programme in which the State is meant to pay for their education. In some extreme cases, students have discontinued their studies due to nonpayment of the fees.

Under the programme started in the 2018-19 academic year, the government would place students in private universities and partly pay their tuition fees. However, it did not meet its full obligation and private universities now claim Sh31.4 billion in pending bills.

“Up to now, I don’t know the amount owed to the university for my son’s education. I paid the Sh16,000 per year expected of me and for his food and accommodation. It wasn’t my wish that he went to a private university and no one asked me. Now he’s just in the house like someone who never went to school despite having completed his studies but with nothing to prove,” Jeniffer Bwari told the Business Daily.

The universities through the Kenya Association of Private Universities (Kapu) have now written to Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu demanding payment of Sh31.4 billion owed to them. They further sought an increase in the funds allocated to the students for 2024-25.

In the Budget Policy Statement, private universities have been allocated Sh1,774,791,604 for government-sponsored students. According to Kapu, this translates to a differentiated unit cost (DUC) of 10.12 percent.

The DUC is the total cost of individual educational programmes in universities. The government is meant to pay 80 percent of the DUC while the student and the university meet the balance. This model was stopped last year when a new funding model was introduced for the students joining the university last September. It, however, still applies to continuing students.

“This is very low since many programmes are very costly and private universities are struggling to educate government-sponsored students. It is, therefore, important that the amount allocated for this financial year be enhanced to 30 percent DUC for private universities. Sir, we shall appreciate your intervention on this matter for the sake of the Kenyan students studying in private universities,” reads the letter to Mr Machogu by Kapu treasurer Washington Okeyo. He is also the vice chancellor Management University of Africa.

32 private universities participated in the programme. The cost of the programmes was in the range of Sh144,000 and Sh504,000 per academic year for the arts and science-based programmes, respectively.

The CEO Universities Fund Geoffrey Monari has confirmed the amount owed to the universities with the Pending Bills Verification Committee at the National Treasury. His form, seen by the Business Daily, was received on February 6 2024.

“Some students in private universities have been discontinued, for example, Uzima [University]. We are just trying to see if some funds can be released to assist these students in finishing their studies. I hope people will see the big picture. It is a request which is yet to be considered. Public universities also presented their pending bills requests,” he said.

Under the funding model introduced last year, public and private universities are required to declare the cost of each of their programme and sign a memorandum of understanding with the government on the same. The costs are published on the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (Kuccps) to guide students as they make their applications.

For students who select and are placed in public universities, the government finances their education through a combination of scholarships, student loans and bursaries, based on their level of need. Currently, those who opt for placement at private universities only qualify for student loans.

“The students are sent to us through an arrangement between the university and the government. Once the students under this programme pay the portion of fees that the government expects them to pay, we allow them to graduate and collect their certificates,” a senior official of Mt Kenya University told Business Daily.

Meanwhile, Auditor-general Nancy Gathungu has questioned how the money sent to private universities in the previous model was utilised. Her report questions the expenditure of over Sh883.3 million on students for periods exceeding the duration of their academic programmes, students not placed by the Kuccps, students on deferred or long academic leave, already graduated students as well as duplicated disbursements.

Ms Gathungu has recommended that the State Department of Higher Education should account for Sh162,365,484 indicated as having been disbursed to private universities but which was not received.

“Further, the Universities Fund (UF) board and the state department should reconcile their records and explain the excess disbursements of Sh19,017,387,” the report reads. It highlights a variance of Sh162,365,484 in the disbursement records from the Ministry of Education and receipts records from the universities.

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