Sciences courses lose popularity to business at university

Only one in four undergraduates is studying a course in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), despite the large number of related programmes on offer and the critical role they play in development, a review by Nation Newsplex reveals.

In contrast, more than two in five students (43 per cent) are enrolled in Business and Education courses.

Compared to 95,053 students in Business and Administration courses, there are 20,648 undergraduate students in engineering, 13,771 in Mathematics and Statistics and 20,925 in technology courses.

Business and Administration courses are the most popular, with 22 per cent of students enrolled. Education (Arts) have15 per cent and Humanities and Arts have nine per cent of students enrolled, according to the State of University Education in Kenya Report 2016.

At graduation time, only 20 per cent (44,386 undergraduates) received degrees in STEM from both public and public universities between 2012 and 2015. Comparatively, 137,325 students (63 per cent) graduated from Business, Education and Humanities courses in the same period.

Experts say Kenya needs to invest more in STEM if it is to transform into an industrialising middle-income country by 2030 as envisioned in its development plans.

A survey by Newsplex found that many university students ended up being enrolled in courses they did not choose, or did not understand.

Prof Ddembe Williams, the Project Director for Research and Information at Linking Industry with Academia Trust (LIWA), says the inability for the country to match its academic input with industrial needs could be as a result of the nature of Kenya’s Education System that does not expose children to STEM careers early in life.

Williams says that because of lack of facilities and resources at universities to facilitate high quality learning some of the STEM graduates lack requisite skills.

One of the worst affected sectors is health, with only 22 doctors per 100,000 people, which is way below the World Health Organisation recommended rate, and 4,077 in training, according to data from the Economic Survey 2017.

According to the World Bank, the rate of unemployment for youths aged between 15-24 stands at 17 per cent in Kenya.

Hiring expatriates

The lack of expertise in STEM fields results in the African continent in general spending approximately Sh404 billion every year in hiring expatriates to provide these services, according to the International Organisation of Migration.

A survey by Newsplex found that many university students ended up being enrolled in courses they did not choose, or did not understand.

For instance, Stacy (she did not want her surname to be used), a student pursuing a Diploma in Business and Information Technology at Strathmore University narrates how her parent talked her out of her course of interest to pursue a path that, her parent believed, was best for her.

“Having completed my KCSE in 2016, I applied twice to be accepted for an agriculture course but in vain. I also have huge interest in psychology, but my parent talked me out of it, saying that there is no market for psychologists in Kenya, so I ended up here.”

Patricia, a fourth year Economics student at the University of Nairobi, wishes she had more time to choose what to study at University because she was almost in third year before she found her passion.

“I realised my passion was in Veterinary Science. I got this interest by accompanying my cousin who is a Veterinary doctor on his errands. I feel like if I had more time after high school to think about my career, I would have made a much better decision.” She hopes to follow her passion once she graduates.

Kirui, a student at Strathmore University pursuing a Masters Degree in Information Technology, believes he ended in the right place. In an interview with Newsplex, Mr Kurui attributes his great interest in Information Technology to having attended a secondary school that offered Computer Studies.

“I was introduced to computers in high school as a subject. That’s where my interest developed. Coming from a remote village in Eldama Ravine, Baringo County, where nobody has any knowledge about computing, if I had attended a school with no IT infrastructure, I would probably have never taken up Computer Science as a course in my undergraduate,” he says.

He says he was lucky enough to be selected for the course of his choice by the Joint Admissions Board (JAB) which he pursued at the University of Eldoret.

Some students take up courses which their role models took before them. HassanNoor Mohammed, a student from Garissa County is currently pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Economics and Statistics at the University of Nairobi, although he was initially selected to do Arts.

“I was greatly inspired by Economist David Ndii and the late Nyeri Governor Wahome Gakuru. Mr Ndii is very smart and full of knowledge on matters economy. The late Mr Gakuru, once a lecturer here also greatly motivated me. He had a lot of great ideas about the economy.”

Others are motivated by the success stories in their lives. Mike, a First Year student pursuing Purchasing and Supplies says his motivation is the money. “Some of my relatives are in this field and they are paid very well.” This was a common sentiment amongst the students interviewed.

Selection of courses to pursue in public universities is undertaken by the Kenya Universities and College Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), which replaced the Joint Admissions Board (JAB) in 2014. Although its mandate is to promote equity in access to university and college education, several students usually end up in courses they neither applied nor were interested to pursuing, or completely miss the opportunity.

Limited opportunities

Every year, around 750,000 to 800,000 young people enter the job market after completing primary, secondary school or higher learning to scramble for limited opportunities, according to the World Bank. President Uhuru Kenyatta promised in his inauguration speech that the government would ensure 100 per cent transition of students from primary school to secondary school in 2017.

The State of University Education Report recommends support in form of grants and tax waivers for learning institutions to enable the establishment of science-based programmes, and easier acquisition of equipment.

Countries that have appreciated the importance of STEM have made huge leaps in economic development. South Korea’s heavy investment in these areas has enabled the once poor nation experience huge economic development, with a GDP of USD 1.411 trillion and an unemployment rate of four per cent.

South Korea, like other Asian Tigers such as Singapore, anticipated the future market demands early enough.

However, these Asian Tigers are currently being faced with a drop in number of students enrolling in STEM courses, with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long attributing this to a generational change. “Students who have grown up in the currently more developed economy in Singapore take science and technology more for granted, therefore pursuing interest in other areas,” he said.

Prof Williams says despite the huge number of graduates in Kenya, experts believe that the unemployment rate will remain high unless the academia and the industry collaborate in designing the curriculum. Universities do not involve the industry in designing the curriculum therefore missing the important information about the skills that industry requires.

The Commission for University Education in Kenya recognises 168 campuses of universities in Kenya. According to the Economic Survey 2017, there has been a huge increase in the number of students in public universities, with 2016 registering the highest numbers at 479,312, an increase of 65 per cent compared to 2012. During the same year there were 85,195 students in private universities compared to 2012.