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University student numbers drop for first time in 21 years

degree programme
Sharp decline in the parallel degree programme enrollment takes its toll on private and public institutions. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Undergraduate enrollment in public universities has dropped by 56,988, marking the first drop in 21 years on the reduction of parallel degree programme students. The drop is set to worsen the institutions’ already strained cash flows.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that university enrollment declined to 382,971 in the year to June from 439,963 recorded a year ago — making this the first fall since the academic year that ended in June 1998.

Admission to public universities of nearly all students who scored C+ and above over the past three years has reduced the pool of learners available for private universities as well as parallel degree programme students in public universities.

The drop in the number of students pursuing the parallel degree courses, whose fees are based on market rates, has hurt university finances, leading the institutions to freeze hirings and slow down expansion plans as they struggle with huge debts.

“Following the reduction in exam irregularities in the KCSE, fewer students are qualifying to join university today compared to a few years ago,” said Prof Mwenda Ntarangwi, the chief executive of the Commission for University Education (CUE) — the universities’ regulator.

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This is a departure from past trends where enrollment in both public and private universities increased by double-digits on expansion by institutions and the rising appetite for higher education. At the time, the rising student population, especially parallel learners, turned public universities into cash-rich institutions, making them one of the key players in the real estate market as they bought land and multi-billion shilling office blocks to accommodate the learners as well as lecturers and other staff. The rise in enrolment then put pressure on the government to create jobs for the graduates whose number stood at less than 100,000 a decade ago.

The race to acquire university degrees intensified in the mid 1990s as they were viewed as an added advantage by job seekers and workers seeking to gain promotion. However, the falling student enrolment now looks set to ease pressure on higher education facilities, particularly accomodation.

It will also ease pressure on the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb), which has struggled to cater for the needs of a large number of students, many of whom are from poor families who needed loans to pursue higher education.

In the national Budget this year, the Treasury announced radical measures that will see some of the 32 public universities merge and some of their satellite campuses shut down across the country following the cash crunch triggered by declining enrollments.

The merger of universities and campuses as well review of academic courses means that some staff will have to be let go amid protests from unions. Public universities have 27,000 staff with 9,000 being lecturers.

Since 2016, several campuses have been closed across the country after lower entry grades cut student numbers, adversely affecting the lucrative parallel degree programmes in which students paid fees based on market rates. Fees in parallel degree programmes peaked at nearly Sh500,000 annually for course like medicine and pharmacy.

Fees for regular students have remained unchanged for more than two decades at about Sh26,000 annually. Students protested plans to increase the fees by 30 percent last year, halting the rise that was meant to ease cash flow at the institutions. The rise was expected to be the first major increase of fees since the end of free university education in 1991 and the introduction of Helb in 1995.

Some of the universities that have closed some of their campuses include Kisii, Laikipia, Moi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya Methodist University, Catholic University of East Africa and the University of Baraton. Others are Co-operative (Meru), Kabarak (Nairobi) and South Eastern Kenya University (Nairobi). Kenyatta University posted the highest drop in undergraduate enrollment at 4,727 in the review period to 52,427 in June 2019 from 57,154 the year before, followed by Moi whose undergraduate students fell 3,865 to 31,486.

Enrollment in Technical University of Kenya declined 1,329 to 10,242, while that at University of Eldoret went down by 840 to 12,332. Egerton University, on the other hand, witnessed the highest growth in undergraduate enrollment at 4,710 to stand at 15,097 followed by Maseno which admitted 2,271 more students to 18,757. UoN’s enrollment rose 993 to 58,281 students, while Technical University of Mombasa’s went up 781 to stand at 8,892 students, the KNBS data shows.

University of Nairobi warned that the institution will not renew contracts for staff hired on temporary terms due to the dwindling numbers of Module II (parallel) programme. On November 19 it scrapped the agency that has been managing the self-sponsored programmes — popularly known as the parallel module — pointing to a biting funding crisis in the wake of falling admissions.

Cash-strapped Kenya Methodist University last year sought to sell a prime office block in Nairobi to clear a Co-operative Bank loan, meets its tax obligations and settle staff dues.

In January the Catholic University of Eastern Africa placed its three-floor Kisumu campus property on sale, a month after it halted business. The Presbyterian University of East Africa has also put on sale 34 acres of land in Kikuyu at Sh40 million to solve its financial crisis.

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