Calls to raise fees in public varsities riddled with debt

Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu

Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu addresses journalists after the official opening of the first Biennal Kenya Universities Fund Conference in Mombasa on February 23, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira mwangi | Nation Media Group

Tough times lie ahead for students and staff in public universities in planned reforms aimed at rescuing the institutions from the dire financial troubles they are currently steeped in.

The institutions will be forced to increase tuition fees, reduce their bloated workforces, lease out some of their properties, engage in public-private partnerships and find innovative resource mobilisation strategies to stay afloat.

These are some of the drastic measures proposed yesterday at the start of a two-day conference in Mombasa that brought together vice-chancellors from all public universities.

“Many of the universities face challenges in paying staff salaries and their suppliers. The debts continue to pile by the day. This sorry state of affairs is a threat to the universities’ ability to perform their primary mandate of teaching and research. If action is not taken, it’s just a question of time before we experience total collapse,” said Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu who was the chief guest at the first biennial Kenya Universities Funding Conference.

“We also need to think about innovative resource mobilisation models, including how universities can tap into their alumni base as universities in other places do. With increasing demands on the Exchequer, it is time for universities to also explore other project financing methods, such as public-private partnerships, to support some of their needs,” he added.

The call to increase university fees was made by the chief executive officers of the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) Charles Ringera, Universities Fund (UF) Geofrey Monari and Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) Agnes Mercy Wahome, who said the current Sh16,000 is no longer tenable. 

Students' opposition

The proposal to increase the tuition fees which has remained unchanged since 1989 has dominated public debate lately, although it is strongly opposed by students. 

On paper, the government is meant to fund university programmes at 80 per cent of the total cost, but this has shrunk to about 48 per cent, saddling universities with debts. 

Public universities are indebted to the tune of Sh60.6 billion in staff pensions and statutory deductions such as Pay As You Earn and National Hospital Insurance Fund. The figure has been growing due to interest.

“If the government hasn’t been able to reach 80 per cent of the Differentiated Unit Cost (DUC), should we be stuck there? Where do households come in? We need to agree that if there are no more resources coming from the Exchequer, the DUC becomes 50 per cent and the other 50 per cent comes from the household or the loan (Helb). Consequently, move to the loan side and recapitalise the portfolio of the loan side so that you’re either tripling it and then increasing the school fees to between Sh48,000 to Sh52,000,” Mr Ringera said.

“What magic can universities do to produce fully baked graduates? If you give them 50 per cent (financing), they’ll give you half-baked graduates,” he added.

Mr Monari said that funding for students will be on merit, needs and available funds, adding that there should be extra funding for students with special needs owing to their unique needs. 

He revealed that UF will develop a higher education performance index through which public universities will be funded. The index will consider specific performance measures such as course completion, degree completion, graduate employability rate, equity and gender instead of allocating funding based entirely on student enrolment.

The chair of the Public Universities Vice-Chancellors Committee, Prof Geoffrey Muluvi, who is also the vice-chancellor of South Eastern Kenya University, said university managers have faced opposition in the implementation of measures to raise revenue.

“We need a lot of support to do these things. There’s a lot of pressure from unions and students. Other sources like research come with restrictions on utilisation,” he said.

Funding model

The Nation understands that the conference has been organised as a follow-up to a meeting the VCs had with a team of economic advisers from State House that is working on a funding model for universities. The VCs are said to have been unhappy with the proposals put forward during the meeting at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies.

Mr Machogu blamed poor management for bloated and unbalanced workforces that have led to high wage bills. He observed that some universities have around four to five deputy vice-chancellors which are “unnecessary”. He lamented that in some universities, the ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff is 1 to 3.

“There is room for reasonable debate on whether the focus should be on a person’s academic qualifications or demonstrated leadership and managerial experience. Effective governance structures will help alleviate some of the challenges that our universities are facing,” he said.

He added that the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms will provide solid and credible recommendations to enhance efficiency and effectiveness in the education sector.

“There have been challenges in the provision of capitation for students, since 2017, the number of students qualifying for university entry has been growing, with the corresponding need for increased government funding. In the 2022 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results, 173,345 students attained C+ and above and will therefore be placed in public and private universities,” said the CS.

Mr Machogu said if all of the students are to be sponsored by the state, the number of students eligible for funding will grow from the current 449,961 students to 599,349 students.

Even as the number of students qualifying for government funding has grown, the CS said there has been no matching increase in funding for universities.

In this financial year, for instance, the funding requirement for public universities is Sh72 billion against an approved allocation of Sh44 billion leaving a deficit of Sh28 billion.

For private universities, the funding requirement is at Sh18 billion against an approved allocation of Sh3 billion leaving a deficit of Sh15 billion.