What you need to know:
- Public universities, particularly the larger ones, are struggling under humongous debt.
- The reason universities are in this uncomfortable situation are well known.
Matters education have been dominating the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately – significant absenteeism after post-Covid-19 schools reopening, rampant pregnancies, inexplicable school fires, to cane or not to cane students, reports of mass failures in preparatory exams, etc. Not pretty at all.
Smothered under all this swirl of negativity is another worrying story – financing university education.
Public universities, particularly the larger ones, are struggling under humongous debt that university councils and managements see no easy solution to.
The reason universities are in this uncomfortable situation are well known.
Up to about six or so years ago, government capitation (the money that government gives to universities to run those institutions) was not great but fees from parallel programmes offered to self-sponsored students more than made up for any shortfalls.
Universities were cash rich and the University of Nairobi could even afford to put up its impressive towers with hardly any debt.
But the high number of students qualifying for university raised questions about the quality of examinations and provoked the system shake-up led by then Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i in 2016.
Stringent controls of the examinations that year produced less than 80,000 students qualifying for university admission. These were absorbed directly into public universities with extra spaces to spare.
The self-sponsored modules took a hit and as student numbers dwindled year on year with successive graduations, there is only a trickle of self-sponsored students coming in at under-graduate levels.
Universities have been left to rely largely on government capitation, precisely when the government has little capacity to service the request from universities.
Councils and university managements will continue requesting increases in capitation but they also want government to accede to two requests that could significantly and quickly ease the financial burden.
One, university student fees must be adjusted upwards and two, government must allow universities to apply the Differentiated Unit Cost formula in calculating how much a student pays for the course they are taking.
These requests are not new and it is surprising that what appears to be an obvious option is being resisted.
University fees have stayed fixed at an unbelievable figure of about Sh16,000 a year, for more than three decades. This is a figure below what secondary and high school students are paying in public schools. It does not even start to compare with what students are paying in private universities.
The vice-chancellors’ committee has requested that this be increased to Sh48,000 a year, over a specific period. They have even very reasonably suggested that the increase starts with the first year intake that follows the adoption of the adjusted fees to spare continuing students the disruption of a new fees schedule mid-stream.
The Differentiated Unit Cost regime will impose different fees for different courses. It is a moot point that courses in engineering, medicine, architecture and other technical fields cost more to deliver (equipment, materials, time, etc.) than those in the humanities. Why then should the fees charged for all courses be the same across the board? It does not make sense.
The parliamentary committee on education will soon be hearing submissions from ministry officials on the issue and it is important that they receive and review them with sobriety.
When the conversation started a few months ago, it generated some heat, with students and even some leaders voicing opposition to it. This knee-jerk reaction to a reasonable and timely proposal is worrying.
Array of demands
While no one argues with the fact that parents are having to deal with an incredible array of demands on incomes that are barely expanding, they cannot run away from this reality.
Granted, universities must find ways of increasing their own revenues – through alumni, grants, public private partnerships, disposal of idle assets, etc. Some may need to rationalise their course focus and limit the areas of study.
But this will not extinguish the argument for fees increase and introduction of DUC. In fact, it amplifies it. With fewer students comes the need for higher fees.
Universities urgently need a substantial injection of cash to offset their payables and other commitments they are in arrears of. They are also staring at an increase in staff costs by way of new Collective Bargaining Agreements.
Parliament and the government cannot bury their heads in the sand and wish this problem away. The solution is evident.
The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of Nation Media Group and is now consulting. email@example.com, @tmshindi)