Universities are waiting to reap big from increased enrolment as a result of the 100 per cent transition policy from primary to secondary school.
However, the government is grappling with the financial headache the student boom will pose to higher education.
Next year will see the first batch of students, who were enrolled in 2017 when the campaign was introduced, leave secondary school to join higher education — universities, middle-level colleges or Technical and Vocational Education and Training institutions.
In the last five years, the number of candidates who have been sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination has been going up.
In 2015, the candidates were 937,467, 942,021 in 2016, 1,003,556 in 2017, 1,052,344 in 2018 and 1,083,456 last year.
The surge has continued at the secondary level, with the number of students attaining a C+ and above — the minimum qualification for entry to university — going up.
A total of 89,486 qualified in 2017, 90,755 in 2018 and 125,000 last year. This obviously means the trend will continue in the coming years with the transition campaign in top gear.
But, according to Technical University Vice-Chancellor Francis Aduol, increased enrolment will not necessarily be good news for the institutions.
“Unless the government substantially expands its budget to cater for increased enrolment, the 100 per cent transition policy will simply backfire because the quality of education will suffer, joblessness will increase and our universities will become unpopular, both at home and internationally,” said Prof Aduol, who is also the chairman of the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee for public universities.
According to official budget figures, the government allocates Sh42 billion for students in both public and private universities.
Out of this, Sh2.5 billion is given to the 40,000 students in private institutions while Sh39 billion goes to the 279,000 students in public institutions.
Ideally, the government should pay 80 per cent for each student under the Maximum Differentiated Unit Cost while the remaining 20 per cent should be shared between parents and universities.
However, the government only caters for about 61 per cent of the total cost of a degree programme in public universities while those in private ones are funded at about 32 per cent.
In this financial year, the available budget for government-sponsored students in private universities is Sh2.5 billion, which can only support 18,835 at 61 per cent of the maximum unit differentiated cost, while that for 207,558 students in public universities is Sh29 billion.
This means that the available budget for the incoming students is Sh10 billion, which can only fund 71,543 students.
According to Prof Aduol, an average four-year degree programme requires about Sh240,000 to complete, and with the government paying 60 per cent, which is Sh144,000, the rest -- Sh92,000 -- must be footed by a university and parents.
“Since universities can’t kick students out if they don’t pay the balance, they are always left with a deficit. The government has no choice but to expand higher education substantially,” he says.
He adds poignantly: “To maintain operations, universities have to cut down on the level of teaching and staffing, which means the education quality is poor. Because of this financial stress, students end up being poorly grounded, and that is why employers are reluctant to hire fresh graduates.”
But Universities Fund Chief Executive Milton Njuki disagrees. “It’s really not a question of more funding but sustainability. Universities must stop their over-dependence on the government for funding. They have to aggressively look for funds outside official sponsorship. Like those in the developed world, they must reach out to their alumni, attract grants and endowments and make money from their core activity, which is research.”
He says while the government must strive to provide education to as many people as possible at heavily subsidised levels, universities must aim for self-reliance to create more stability and autonomy.
“Universities must find their niche by specialising to create super brands respected across the borders. Currently, you can find every degree programme in every university and campus. That is not how to be centres of excellence,” says Mr Njuki.
The Universities Fund was created in 2016 to allocate funds to public universities and issue conditional grants to private universities.
Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha in June asked vice-chancellors in public universities to send him proposals on how to reform the institutions.
One of their proposals, according to Prof Aduol, is to classify the institutions into four broad areas: traditional, sciences and technology, technical and specialised.
“We proposed to have universities clustered around thematic academic programmes according to their strength in facilities and faculty, and underpinned by job market and economic requirements, but the CS is yet to give us his own feedback,” says Prof Aduol.
Other proposals were on sustainable funding, appointment and promotion of academic staff and examination processes.
Last year, private universities petitioned the National Assembly to push the Treasury to raise allocations to Sh5.6 billion for government-sponsored students in their institutions.
The Kenya Association of Private Universities Chairman Mumo Kisau said funds allocated to the institutions were inadequate even though enrolment was going up every year.
Prof Kisau said last week that private universities have presented a petition to Prof Magoha and that he hopes an announcement will be made soon.