The Future of Kenyan Universities - Five Reasons for Optimism and Hope

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” – Hellen Keller . The cancellation of the Letter of Interim Authority for Presbyterian University of Eastern Africa (PUEA), Commission for University Education (CUE) warnings to Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) and Kenya Methodist University (KEMU), the closure of close to 14 university campuses in 2017, the reduced number of 2017 KCSE candidates eligible for direct university admissions appears to suggest that there is reason for the university leadership to be alarmed. Some universities have reacted with increased advertising and open days in the competition for students and that could achieve the desired result of attracting the fewer students available.

However, there are many reasons for optimism and hope for the Kenyan University sector and universities, the above challenges notwithstanding. I have listed only five of them below:-

University education in Kenya is still considered very important by all stakeholders (e.g., the national government, county governments, Kenyan households )

The national government has retained the state department on universities and research in its 2018 government formation. This despite the fact there are only 70+ universities / university colleges and only 600,000 university students (this enrolment still far from the target GER of 10% in the Vision 2030). The research portfolio in the Ministry of Education is really only for universities since research institutes are under other ministries (e.g., KEMRI under Ministry of Health).

County governments continue to sponsor creation of new public universities (e.g., proposed Koitalel arap Samoei University College, Kajiado University College, Nyandarua University College, etc). It is likely all 47 counties will have a university in the next 10 years but they will be very different universities.  

The Kenyan household continues to pay tuition and living expenses for a significant fraction of university students. No data is available to KENET but anecdotal evidence suggests over 90% of private university and 40% of public university students are still partially sponsored by Kenyan households.

The Universities Act 2012 is having positive effect on the quality of university education. Senior university leadership of both public and private universities take CUE inspection very seriously with many requesting KENET to open the bandwidth pipe during the inspection. The University Funding Board and operationalization of the Differentiated Unit Cost will force universities to re-examine their cost structures and efficiency in the next few years for the benefit of academic programs and students.

Universities, both new and old, have continued to invest in campus ICT infrastructures and automation. This has increased their e-readiness and could therefore leverage on ICT to reduce cost of teaching and administration and to increase research collaboration and productivity.  All that is required now is to focus on faculty development and to change academic policies to accommodate modern educational technology practices.

Kenya has a relatively large pool of faculty with PhD. The PhD faculty could then be used to increase the national PhD throughput in the next 10 years. They could also help universities compete for national, regional, and global collaborative research grants. The fact that there are international research institutes (e.g., ILRI, ICIPE, ICRAF, KEMRI-Welcome Trust, Ampath) located in Kenya mean that the opportunities for global collaborative research grants is relatively high.  But there will need to be new ways of managing and rewarding PhD-level faculty to stop them from focusing on part-time teaching and independent consulting.

Emerging focus on research productivity and research collaboration by Kenyan universities. Already, some Kenyan universities have stated their ambitions of becoming “research-intensive or “innovation-intensive” universities which means greater focus on Intellectual Property output and attracting research grants / revenue. Unfortunately, the transformation from being a “teaching or comprehensive” university to a “research-intensive” university could take about 10 years of senior leadership focus on research and innovation. As an example, the University of California at San Diego in the US with an enrollment of only 34,000 students, 50% of them graduate students, had a research budget of $1 billion in 2017.

All universities will have to diversify their sources of revenue and find ways to reduce their operational expenses, probably by leveraging ICT in administration, teaching and research. The challenge for you as VCs is managing the disruptive organizational transformation required that might include difficult HR decisions. See attached 2-page article on the EDUCAUSE 7 Things You Should Know about Transformation Change.