In May 2021, the Uasin Gishu County Government partnered with Tampere University, Finland, in a programme that would see students from the devolved unit airlifted to live, study and work in the foreign country.
It was a dream come true for many, given the yearning of young Kenyans to join universities overseas.
Many, especially those from humble backgrounds, had enthusiastically applied for the opportunity, hoping it would save them from the tedious immigration processes that come with obtaining travel documents.
The first batch of learners left the country in September 2021, three months after the deal was signed – the 51 students were to pursue medicine and other science-related courses: 25 were going to pursue degree courses and 26 were to pursue diplomas.
The icing on the cake was that the successful applicants in the programme were guaranteed employment in Finland upon completion of their courses.
Because of this, many families took a chance, organising fundraisers to raise the fees to enable their sons and daughters to pursue the dream that would alleviate them from their challenging backgrounds.
The county government went ahead to open an account – the Uasin Gishu County Government Overseas Trust Fund – at KCB Bank to collect the tuition fees the students were required to pay.
Under the deal, the devolved unit was to act as a guarantor for the students in their respective universities in payment of their tuition fees.
The county government agreed to collect money from the parents and remit it as a lump sum, thus there was no agreement between parents and the universities to pay the tuition fees directly to the institution.
On September 14, 2021, former Governor Jackson Mandago (now the county senator) flagged off the first batch of 51 students to travel to Finland to study in a partnership that sought to produce qualified health personnel for the international labour market, while at the same time addressing youth unemployment.
A year and several months down the line, however, the cake tastes bitter for several students after the county failed to remit money for some of the successful candidates, even though they had paid the requisite funds.
The Nation has established that some families are now seeking assurance from the county administration that the deal still stands since they do not have direct contact with the universities. Some of the parents are demanding a refund of their money terming the entire arrangement a scam.
The complaints prompted the formation of an ad hoc committee to establish the legal framework on which the Finland scholarship programme was anchored. The team is looking into whether there is a memorandum of understanding between the county government and the targeted Finland universities.
The committee was informed that 202 students are in Finland under the programme, which was to be implemented at Tampere, Jyvaskala and LUT universities, among others. According to the county education department, Max-global acted as the agent in the recruitment of students and the county stood in for the bank statements for the students.
The 12-member team will also seek to establish whether the programme was subjected to public participation as required, the amount that was deposited, and how it was transferred to the Finish universities. Further, it will establish whether the management of the funds complied with the law.
What is emerging is that although the previous county administration created an account to collect funds from parents and later remit it to the universities as an entity, parents were not made trustee members. It has also emerged that some of the students who made successful applications under the programme are stranded here in Kenya, despite making payments to the county government. The county government has attributed this delay to visa challenges.
The students have now been forced to pursue their courses online as they remain uncertain on whether they will ever travel to Finland as anticipated, almost a year down the line.
Among the students is Asneth Some, who parted with her savings and sold property to raise funds for the programme.
She disclosed that she paid a total of Sh1.27 million to the county government account to pursue a two-year diploma course. Ms Some explained that she paid Sh918,000 for tuition fees, Sh180,000 for accommodation, Sh47,000 for her visa and Sh27,000 for insurance.
“We were issued with a bank statement after depositing the money in a KCB account and waited to fly out. But in August, we were asked to start online classes due to delays in the processing of visas,” she said.
She now wants the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to take over the matter and establish the truth about the programme.
Both the county government and university officials from Finland have admitted to hiccups in the implementation of the programme.
Governor Jonathan Bii held talks with officials from Tampere city and the university on how to resolve the matter and facilitate smooth learning for the students.
“In the last few weeks, there was a lot of noise especially on social media about the well-being of our students in Finland and I have had a very candid talk with the team from Finland on the motive of this very noble programme,” said the governor when he met the team in his office.
He admitted that there were “ a few” managerial issues that the ad hoc committee would be able to resolve.
“My administration is providing more transparency by entering into a memorandum of understanding with parents and also ensuring parents are trustee members in the education trust so that they have more say in the management of the programme,” said Mr Bii.
According to multiple sources we spoke to, the programme was put together to circumvent conditions set by Finish universities where they do not deal directly with parents in payment of fees and rigid requirements by the immigration department.
“It is true and it should be open that the county government does not offer a scholarship for students. What the county government can do is create a revolving fund to support education programmes for those who are needy. It is important to understand that it is the parents who are supposed to cater for the fees for their children going overseas under this programme,” said the governor.
“We want to request parents to pay the school fees on time and ignore the negativity around,” said Mr Bii as he defended the programme.
Some parents and students, however, say they were made to understand that education in Finland would be stress-free, but some of the universities have not received any funds despite the county government collecting money from parents.
“The task force will re-negotiate their engagement to ensure all parties are happy,” said John Barorot, Uasin Gishu’s Deputy Governor, noting that 135 students are waiting to secure visas to travel to Finland under the programme.
County Assembly Majority Leader Julius Sang noted that the assembly was aware of the complaints by the public over the implementation of the programme.
“We know of several students who have benefited through the scholarship programme during the last term and the terms of reference will enable us to dig deeper and understand the whole situation,” said Mr Sang.
The county lawmakers are also seeking to establish claims of shoddiness in how the entire programme was undertaken.
“This is a thorny issue of late and the public has seen the need to petition the assembly. I have directed the members to look into the issues,” said County Assembly Speaker Philip Muigei. Gilbert Chepkonga (Aibakoi/Olare) and Francis Muya (Langas) were picked as the chairperson and vice-chairperson, respectively of the ad hoc committee to look into the matter.
Other members of the team are Rebecca Chepchirchir (Kuinet/ Kapsuswa), Gilbert Kosgei (Cheptiret/Kipchamo), Jonathan Ngetich (Kaptagat), David Keitany (Sergoit), Isaac Samoei (Kapsaos), Amos Kiptanui (Race Course), Nicholas Bittok (Tapsagoi), Moses Kibenei (Kapseret/Simat), Goretti Boroswa (Kipsomba) and Evans Kapkeya (Tembelio).
Deputy Mayor of Tampere city Pekka Salmi exuded confidence that the challenges facing the programme can be resolved to facilitate greater cooperation.
“This programme is a win-win for both Uasin Gishu county and Finland. The students are entrepreneurial and in high demand by most employers,” said Mr Salmi.
Dr Caritas Prokui, representing Tampere University, said Finish universities and colleges are eager to fix the teething problems and ensure the sustainability of the program.
“We want to continue this programme and have more students in Finland. There are many opportunities they will be getting for our mutual benefit,” said Ms Prokui.
Some of the parents we interviewed said they are willing to pay fees directly to the university. They want the arrangement reviewed so that they are issued with the accounts of the respective universities so that they can pay the fees directly to facilitate smooth learning for their children.
“We want the universities to issue us with invoices so that we can directly pay fees into their accounts as opposed to the current arrangement,” said Simeon Kogo, whose child is one of the beneficiaries.
He said some of the students in Finland have already secured part-time employment and were remitting money home.
The ad hoc committee is expected to table its recommendations on the matter at the end of this month.