Truly inclusive student loans can help us to ditch parallel degrees

Wednesday March 18 2020
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A graduation ceremony. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Erick Komolo

Having intermittently taught law at university in Kenya since 2016, it has become apparent to me that it’s high time we re-examined the place of universities in our development agenda.

I am particularly concerned with the internationally accepted twin agenda for universities of national human resource development and research-led knowledge generation. On both, Kenya disturbingly lags behind.

CURRENCY RESERVES

From experience, I think in its present form the parallel degree programme plays an inescapable contributory role. And this is not an easy subject to confront because it has inherent social dynamics. Having gone through public school and taught in the same, I have successful personal friends and former students who have benefited from the programme. Yet again, such success stories are the very reason for a policy-oriented national conversation.

In its earlier incarnations from late 1990s when it was introduced, the parallel programme was justified on two important fronts: The need to bolster higher education access and revenue diversification for public universities. I think a third less acknowledged reason was preservation of foreign currency reserves.

Many middle-class families were sending their children abroad for higher education — to India, Malaysia and Uganda, among other countries which had more accessible admissions systems and were perceived to be cheaper. Broadly speaking, the programme had critical national security components.

LACK OF FEES

I know of no one who has taught in Kenya’s public universities over the past decade who thinks we have remained true to the noble justifications. Some give it a more activist look and argue that, the fact that it generated revenue doesn’t seem to trickle enough down to lecturers is proof of failure. And I somewhat share the concerns. Yet the profiles of my students have persuaded me to look beyond and question the foundational relevance of parallel degree programme as a system for university admissions, 20 years on.

In my typical law class, I’ve had 100-200 students, nearly evenly spread between the genders. And, save for consistently notable marginal representation of traditional nomadic communities, most of the ‘mainstream’ Kenya and ‘politicos’ is equitably represented. Just over 80 percent are admitted through the parallel system and the rest through the government-sponsored programme.

An increasingly significant number of parallel students don’t graduate on time. And they justifiably attribute this to lack of tuition fees. This also affects government-sponsored students but it would be disingenuous to attempt a comparison.

Some of my most active former students are directly affected with some unable to graduate three years on. Those are lost earning years with a direct bearing on how they contribute to lift their families out of poverty. Their predicament triggered my curiosity as to why we are stuck with a globally obsolete dual university admissions system.

STUDENT LOANS

Competitive universities employ many considerations in their national admissions besides course-aligned strict academic requirements, and for the most part eschew financial considerations. So, in multiracial societies, race becomes a consideration. In multi-ethnic societies, ethnicity becomes a factor. And where, as in Kenya, internationalisation is an objective, a quota is preserved for international students.

In nearly all these societies, funding is left to a dedicated public institution that employs rigorous means-tested system to allocate student loans. If my daughter scores an A and demonstrates some commitment to society, her immediate reward ought to be a broad competitive course choice, not public-sponsored tuition waiver, if I can afford it.

Empirically, the reverse is true with the parallel programme. Outside broad basic academic requirements, ability to pay determines admission and graduation, but that is less openly acknowledged. That is not fair. With a data-driven public agency, Kenya has sufficient resources to offer truly inclusive student loans in public universities.

Dr Komolo is a law lecturer and visiting scholar at Harvard. @ekomolo