Why public universities must stop lamenting and shape up or risk sinking

New Students seeking admission at the Technical University of Mombasa.

Students seek admission to Technical University of Mombasa.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

The disquiet over placement of government-sponsored students in private universities has been raging for some time. Those opposed to placement of government-sponsored students argue that it is an aberration for the state to use its resources to grow private universities while public institutions are cash-strapped and are on the verge of collapsing.

They posit that placing government-sponsored students in public universities would improve their balance sheet and enable them recover from their financial woes. Underlying this argument is the idea that the government should not bother about these private universities that are in business to make money. They further argue that private universities have better infrastructure and do not need support.

On the other hand, those supporting the move argue that private and faith-based universities, like private schools, provide essential services and support the government in achieving its educational goals.

They want the government to appreciate the complementary role private institutions play in provision of education. The discourse on this issue started back in 2012 through Sessional Paper number 14.

The idea of placement of government-sponsored students into private universities was proposed as one way of reforming the financially troubled university sector.

This paper identified the expansion of government student sponsorship to private universities as one of the key ways to address challenges facing university education in Kenya.

It was however; in 2016, that President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the placement of government-sponsored students in all universities.

The President argued that investment in higher education by the public, private sector and religious organisations should be looked at positively to see how to leverage these investments to train more Kenyans.

“Those private universities and religious institutions are also taxpayers. These resources belong to us,” the President said.

Since then, about 86,000 students have been placed in private universities. In 2016, the institutions admitted 10,984 students, 17,363 in 2017, 12,656 in 2018, 17,511 in 2019 and 27,756 in 2021.

There are reasons this issue has become this emotive. Why are public universities unhappy? It is because most of them, if not all, are financially insolvent. They are in intensive care unit or at best in high dependency unit. The clearest sign of near total collapse is the fact that they are unable to remit statutory deductions. They owe billions of shillings to the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Unfortunately, we are not asking how these universities accumulated debts into billions of shillings. How can we explain to the public that it is in the institutions with highest concentration of educated people that are on the verge of collapsing? To rule out mismanagement as one of the reasons for the sad state of affairs could be a tragic mistake.

Many in public universities blame the financial woes on the drop in the number of students and that is why they insist on having all government students join public universities.

Be it as it may, there are other issues. The past 10 years have witnessed tectonic transformations and shifts in higher education, which have ushered in a new era for universities.

The changes taking place are not temporary, but permanent in many ways. That is why it is foolhardy to imagine going back to the old order and running public universities in the same old ways.

My recent research that culminated in the award of a Master’s Degree in Business Administration in 2019 by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology revealed that the emerging terrain in higher education has far-reaching implications to quality, survival and branding of universities.

It is good to recall that not long ago, thousands of Kenyan students on government scholarship were admitted to foreign universities. Most of them ended up in Indian universities that were not as good as our private universities. Back home, our public universities have not always been this financially poor. Before the Dr Fred Matiang’i reforms of 2016, our universities had gone ballistic in admitting privately sponsored students.

To enhance their competitiveness, they opened outposts all over the country. Some overreached themselves by operating in neighbouring countries. Some of these outposts never broke even. We lost a lot of money.

This model stimulated competition across universities.

Whereas student numbers mattered in the rat race, there are indications that we may have drastically compromised quality.

There is evidence that not much of the money was ploughed back into the development of infrastructure to support learning.

Universities moved to prioritise marketing of their programmes and services. The results were not what we anticipated.

Public universities found themselves, unfortunately, adopting private values that are not in line with age-old principles that govern knowledge generation, dissemination and social responsibility.

Repercussions include quality issues and commercialisation of education that made it possible for issuing of fake degrees. The opening of sub-standard outposts and unethical practices led to the cheapening of university education. On this, we are guilty as charged.

The Matiang’i tough policies ushered in meticulous supervision of Kenya Certificate of Primary Education )KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations.

The pool of “qualified” students who would join universities as privately-sponsored dried up when the KCSE examination results for 2016 were announced.

All students who scored C+ from then, which is minimum entry to university, are sponsored by the government and therefore there is no surplus to join universities as privately sponsored learners.

Crudely put, the cash cow died and universities have to rethink their strategies. They cannot convince many that stopping to send government-sponsored students to private universities is a panacea to their problems.

Prof Kabaji is a researcher at Masinde Muliro University, Vice President of the Pan African Writers Association and Member of the National University-Industry Collaboration Committee [email protected]