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Varsities must bite the bullet or perish

Monday May 13 2019

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Universities have been the subject of public discourse in the past few weeks for several reasons. The first is the declining enrolments due to a reduced number of qualifiers as the government tightens the nuts in examination administration at high school, locking out cheats and stabilising performance.

The second, and quite critical, is the inability of some universities and several courses to attract students, technically rendering them untenable, hence an inevitable shutdown. The third, and which is the subject here, is the excruciating financial crisis afflicting the institutions of higher learning.

The latest Auditor-General’s report presents a grim picture of the financial upheavals in public universities. Private universities are no exception either, only that they are not audited by the Auditor-General; they are equally hard-hit, if not worse.

The University of Nairobi, as well as Multimedia and Kenyatta universities, are hugely indebted. The situation is so bad that they can no longer fulfil their financial obligations — such as remitting workers’ contributions to cooperatives and statutory deductions to the National Social Security Fund and National Hospital Insurance Fund. They also owe pension schemes.

It’s not just the three that are crushing; nearly all the public universities are insolvent. And the reasons are varied. First, since the introduction of cost-cutting in social sectors, including higher education, under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (Saps) of the 1980s and early ’90s, and concomitant levying of fees, the universities have never been the same again. They have consistently and perennially suffered a cash crunch.

Matters were exacerbated by the unplanned expansion of the institutions, and increased enrolments, which came to bear on the resources. In what turned out to be a reckless move, universities opened satellite campuses across the country, and others, like Kenyatta and Jomo Kenyatta, crossed the borders, which projects turned out to be expensive misadventures. Debts have piled up and it is not surprising that universities such as Nairobi have stalled projects that date to the early 1990s.


When parallel, or ‘Module 2”, degree programmes were introduced in the mid-1990s, they quickly turned into cash cows for the universities. But that was short-lived. Monies generated from the programmes were used to pay lecturers and other staff, but little was left for improvement or expansion of facilities. The bubble has since burst, leaving the universities with egg on the face.

Redeeming the universities is imperative, but inevitably painful. Getting out of the rut requires painful surgery. Universities must abolish unpopular programmes, close satellite campuses and reduce staff. The government should also allow universities to charge competitive fees to meet their operations.