The standoff between parents of government sponsored students and the United States International University Africa (USIU-A) has exposed the soft underbelly in the recently launched ambitious plan by the state to sponsor students in privately owned universities.
Confusion about how much fees the students ought to pay is already causing acrimony with each university charging different amounts, which could lock out hundreds of the intended beneficiaries of the plan launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta last month, the Sunday Nation has established.
At USIU-A, the dispute between the institution and the parents of students admitted under the government sponsorship programme was ignited after the university asked them to pay an additional Sh65,000 before admission per semester.
Further, parents complain that the institution has made it mandatory for the students to learn in trimesters yet the government will pay for only two semesters in a calendar year.
Other universities also appear to have turned the otherwise noble initiative into a money minting venture by introducing extra charges like quality assurance fees and Kenya Universities and Colleges Placement Service (KUCCPS) fee.
This is despite the fact that placement fees for government sponsored students is paid directly to KUCCPS.
Students are only supposed to top up Sh16,000 per academic year with the government paying the rest, according to the KUCCPS.
This is the same rate government sponsored students in public universities pay.
The plan, whose purpose is to increase accessibility to university education for thousands of qualified Kenyans who cannot afford to sponsor themselves, appears to have been done with good intentions.
But if the existing deadlock between USIU-A and its prospective first year government sponsored students is anything to go by, then it appears a number of loose ends were not tied before the roll out of the programme, putting the future of the students hanging in a balance.
Some 12,096 students were enrolled in 29 privately owned universities which embraced the plan. They began reporting last week.
According to the placement list, Mt Kenya University was allocated 1,580 students, Catholic University of East Africa (CUEA) 1,182, Presbyterian University of East Africa 853, Kenya Methodist University 701 and Zetech University (635) students rounding up the top five institutions according to allocations.
Other universities which got students include Tangaza University College, Africa Nazarene, Africa international University, Baraton University of Eastern Africa, Daystar University, Great Lakes University, Gretsa University, International College Leadership University and Kabarak University, among others.
But at USIU-A, less than half of the 221 students who were selected to join the university failed to show up amidst complaints about the increased fees and trimester model favoured by private universities.
Under the trimester model, a student studies three semesters per year with the third one counted as part of a new academic year.
This enables one to complete a four year course in three calendar years and also achieves economies of scale since the university can continuously teach without breaking.
Public Universities on the other hand have a four-month break before the start of a new academic year.
USIU has dismissed the claims made by the students.
“The agreement states that students would be accepted in programmes in which the university has capacity,” the university’s External Communication Co-ordinator Jackline Chirchir said.
“It was further agreed that they would pay the same tuition fee applicable in public universities with the exception of housing and fees levied for various services charged by the university,” she said.
Under the plan, which brings to a total of 86,484 students selected to join universities under state sponsorship, the government will pay fees for all the students selected on a similar rate with those in public universities – Sh70,000 per student.
“The students are supposed to be treated like their counterparts in government sponsored universities. What you are seeing are hiccups but the arrangements are there to ensure things run smoothly,” John Muraguri, the chief executive of the agency in charge of placing students in universities and colleges told the Sunday Nation.
But despite Mr Muraguri’s assurances, the reality on the ground is different with each university interpreting the pact they signed with government differently.
An admission letter from the Pan African Christian University (PAC) to a first year government sponsored student seen by the Sunday Nation reads: “The government of Kenya shall pay tuition fees. However, you are expected to: pay a statutory fee of Sh12,500 per term and organise for meals. Hostels are available for Sh7,500 and Sh10,500 per term for male and female students respectively.”
And it gets further confusing when you consider what other institutions are charging.
Baraton, for instance, has charged its first year government sponsored students Sh26,500 for the first semester, Catholic University is charging Sh20,000, Gretsa University (Sh25,500) while the Presbyterian University of East Africa has charged them Sh24,000.
This is subjecting the students to pay more than their counterparts in public institutions yet they have been admitted using the same criteria.
Dr John Nyambega, the head of communications at CUEA, says KUCCPS had given the institutions a ceiling.
“We were told we shouldn’t exceed Sh46,000 per year and we capped ours at Sh40,000. Those charging more than Sh23,000 are overcharging these students which will dampen what was a good idea to assist poor qualified students get education,” he told the Sunday Nation.
“The main issue right now should be accommodation because government sponsored students in public universities are guaranteed to get hostels but each institution was told to work that out. Like for us we have organised for external accommodation and we have buses ferrying the students there,” he explains.
Private universities are known to charge high fees making them accessible to a small fraction of the society.
A self-sponsored student joining Daystar University as a boarder at their Athi River Campus for instance will pay at least Sh99,200 in the first semester alone.
Out of this Sh75,750 will go to tuition fees, Sh14,000 will be charged as one off expenses which include caution money, orientation fees, development fees among others.
The cheapest hostel accommodation costs Sh9,450.
At Baraton, a new student intending to be a boarder will pay at least Sh129,000 to be admitted.
Out of this at least Sh80,000 will be tuition fees, Sh10,000 for a hostel and Sh33,000 for food per semester.
And at the USIU-A a first year who intends to board will pay at least Sh190,000 on admission while a day scholar will pay Sh107,000.
Tuition fees costs Sh87,000 while hostel fees at the campus situated along Thika Road costs Sh30,000.
Cooking is not allowed in the hostels but a student can pay Sh46,000 per semester to receive seven meals per day from the cafeteria.
By comparison, government sponsored students in public universities pay about Sh15,000 per semester and Sh2,000 as hostel fees while those who are self-sponsored pay an upwards of Sh60,000 per semester as tuition fees.
Getting a hostel is no longer a guarantee since 2010 when the government stopped pegging admissions on bed space.
Such high fees charged by private universities mean only those who can afford are able to attend such institutions.
On the flip side, it ensures maximum attention to students by faculty due to a smaller class size.
STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE
Like at USIU-A, the maximum allowed number of students in a class is 25.
But while government universities have no problem getting students and are often enrolled past capacity, private universities on the other hand have been struggling to get numbers due to the cost factor.
“We have been utilising only 60 per cent of the capacity in private universities and a whole 40 per cent has been idle because we have been targeting people who have been able to pay,” Simon Gicharu, the chairman of National Association of Private Universities in Kenya, told the Sunday Nation.
As a result most private universities which depend on student fees for their upkeep are struggling to exist as demonstrated by a report released last month by the Commission for University Education (CUE), which said they are indebted to a tune of Sh7 billion.
State owned universities receive up to 50 per cent of their income from the government.
“The university sub-sector is spending more resources than what it receives from the various income streams. If this trend is not remedied then the universities may not meet their obligations as mandated in law,” said The State of University Education in Kenya report.
It added that a number of institutions were on the verge of folding up.
Kenya has 33 public universities and 35 private universities, out of which 17 are fully chartered.
However, only 29 privately owned universities agreed to be part of the scheme with notable absentees including Strathmore University, which charges one of the highest tuition fees in the market.
“The problem is everyone is after money at the expense of the needs of Kenyans. Yes we have to do it as a business, but we have forgotten the extra values that go with education,” argues Mr Gicharu.