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Universities must bite the bullet on reforms

Sunday June 16 2019

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The reality is beginning to sink that the country made a mistake in dramatically expanding public universities. It was just a matter of time before the bubble would burst. And that was the painful message coming out of the Budget statement read by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich last week.

Mr Rotich stressed that the existing public universities are unsustainable and must be merged. By extension, their numerous satellite campuses should be closed. That is a painful but inescapable prescription. The universities are reeling under heavy debts and it would be unrealistic for the government to bail them out. Moreover, most of them started huge infrastructure projects like lecture halls and hostels in the 1990s that stalled due to lack of cash. The cost of completing them is enormous and, in the prevailing circumstances, not a priority.

The university enrolment boom was driven by two factors, starting with massive cheating in the high school examination, which created an artificial demand for university places, and which consequently forced them to expand to absorb the qualifiers. The second was workers who needed higher qualifications to progress in careers. The increased number of fee-paying students raised university finances and, for a while, it was a boon. They could meet their obligations, including giving lecturers decent pay as top-ups for teaching parallel degree programmes.

But when the government streamlined management of national exams, leading to a steep drop of university qualifiers since 2016, the institutions found themselves in a financial crunch. Nowadays, they only admit students on government scholarship, whose financing is based on an unrealistic cost structure, and which automatically leads to deficits. Each student is allocated Sh120,000 a year, a figure set way back in the 1990s and which has been overtaken by inflation. Effectively, public universities are severely underfunded and deeply in debt.

The universities, as currently conceptualised, are unsustainable. Student numbers are inadequate and so is cash to keep them running. They have to be reconfigured to reflect the realities of the day. Not only is this driven by the financial crisis, but also weak outputs. When universities expanded, they simply duplicated programmes but hardly introduced new courses and disciplines to extend frontiers of knowledge. There was no value addition.

In the circumstances, we concur that the universities have to be merged, programmes rationalised and the funding model reviewed, based on the unit cost rather than a uniform rate that fails to take cognisance of inputs required for each course. Painful decisions are inevitable if the institutions are to survive.