KENYA – Universities are broke

Universities are broke
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In the recent past, public universities have increased what has come to be known as user or administrative charges by about 200 per cent .

These are imposed by university councils to cover administrative costs such as the provision of medical care, computer services, games equipment, continuous assessment tests and examinations.

The recent increase at the University of Nairobi is an eloquent statement on how public universities have become desperate over the government’s increasing inability to allocate them adequate funds.

Yet the financial squeeze is not specific to Kenyan universities. It is a problem that for more than a decade now has dogged universities in Africa. A leading researcher in higher education, Dr Robert Blair, says: "Most universities in Africa are in a period of continuing crisis accentuated by a seemingly insoluble dilemma: They are expected to accept ever increasing enrolment although governments are decreasingly able to finance them."

Dr Blair, who has conducted studies on financing of university education in Kenya and other African countries, concludes that the only way out — at least until governments can allocate then adequate funds — is for the institutions to explore avenues for financial diversification.

They include charging tuition and other administrative fees, conducting commercial research and consultancy, hiring out university facilities and raising funds from foundations and alumni.

Supporting the case for increased students’ fees, another leading consultant in higher education, Dr William Saint, argues: "The practice of cost recovery through student fees is gaining acceptance, particularly when applied to specific services such as registration, library, access, laboratory use and student activities."

In Universities in Africa, Dr Saint adds that the economic decline of the 1980s that has persisted to date has left universities in a desperate financial situation. In Kenya, this took a major turn between 1987 and 1990 when enrolment in public universities more than trebled. The government used a lot of resources to build hostels to accommodate the increased number of students.

Ironically, this was at a time when studies in higher education were expressing misgivings about investment in students’ hostels instead of academic programmes.

To shore up their fortunes, and as a result of Sessional Paper No 6 of 1988, itself inspired by the Report of the Presidential Working Party on Education and Manpower Training for the Next Decade and Beyond (Kamunge Report), public universities introduced Sh6,000 direct tuition fees in the 1991-92 academic year.

Although the fee was initially resisted by students and parents, it is now widely accepted that students’ financial contribution is part of higher education reform. Currently, university students pay Sh16,000 annual tuition and another Sh10,000 user and administration fees.Those who use accommodation and catering facilities at the university are required to pay another Sh26,000 a year.

The rationale for charging fees is threefold: First, it is a means of securing additional resources for universities. Second, when universities charge direct fees, it is expected that they will be more responsive to students’ needs and thus treat them like clients.

Third, it has been argued — mainly by the World Bank — that if students are made to pay fees, they are less likely to disrupt learning.

Although Kenya is regarded as one of the countries that have made major strides in reforming higher education, the universities’ efforts have been hampered by unrealistic and almost arbitrary funding.

From 1994, the government changed the criteria for allocating funds from the negotiated budgets method to the unit cost approach. In the earlier method, universities would present budgets to the Treasury based on individual needs.

But in the current approach, the government allocates Sh120,000 to every student with no regard to the cost of courses offered. Surveys by public universities show that even the cheapest courses — the humanities — need at least Sh130,000 a year.

Students in courses that require expensive equipment and facilities such as medicine, engineering, architecture and agriculture need between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000 a year.

Thus even with student fees and other charges, universities continue to experience many handicaps, manifested in the poor maintenance of buildings, grounds and equipment, stalled projects, outdated and deteriorating library services and disruption of academic programmes by students.

To reverse the situation, university senates have proposed that the government allocates funds depending on the course cost. The more radical proposal has been to increase tuition fees so that the beneficiaries pay a significant percentage of the unit cost of the courses.

This argument is based on the premise that in developing countries, students pay only between 5 and 8 per cent of the cost of the degree programmes they study.

But higher education experts say students should pay at least 20 per cent of the cost. Indeed, in the more developed economies such as the United Kingdom, students pay at least 30 per cent of university education. In the United States, students in public institutions pay about 15 per cent.

— Mr Kamotho writes on education issues…t.php?style=32

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