• The government is now alarmed at the levels of inefficiency at the universities and demanding urgent reforms
• The challenges the universities are facing today present an excellent opportunity for education leaders to critically examine the malaise.
Thirty years ago, the universities were in the doldrums. Funding for operations and development had considerably dwindled against increasing demand for university admission.
The first cohort of 8-4-4 was joining the first year together with the last batch of the A-level group. The Bretton Wood institutions were also pushing for reforms in public financial management through the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
The African governments, Kenya included, were hurting as budget financing became a nightmare. The budgets had relied heavily on external funding through loans and bilateral agreements conditioned on World Bank and IMF guarantee. It is on these grounds that the government hastily introduced cost sharing in public universities. There existed only two private universities then with nominal students. Students were expected to pay Sh16,000 tuition fees per annum as well as buying food in the cafeterias. Later, the Higher Education Loans Board was introduced to provide loans and bursaries to those who could not afford university education.
These measures led to widespread student riots and eventual closure of all universities for one academic year in 1990 and 1995 respectively. Things moved from bad to worse forcing the universities to commercialise their courses leading to parallel degrees. Critics poured scorn on universities’ efforts to increase access to higher education, terming it massification of low-quality degree certificates. However, the programmes injected the much-needed resources for operations and capital expenditure for the insolvent institutions. Many Kenyans who missed out of university education on account cut-off points got the all-important opportunity for degree education. The financial boom appeared to be on an infinite trajectory. President Mwai Kibaki further opened more new universities.
Then the bubble burst! The high demand for university education was artificially engineered through the usual corrupt ways. When. Fred Matiang'i invited George Magoha to clean the mess at Knec, Kenyans were shell shocked at the deep-seated rot. KCSE candidates qualifying for university reduced drastically and dramatically. Public universities found themselves competing for students even with private ones. All of a sudden, the supply far outstripped the demand. Universities faced the twin challenge of lack of enough students and with it cutoff of significant financial stream.
The country is now in the third cycle of the Magoha-Knec reforms and within it lies the elephant. The quality of courses that have been attracting students in their thousands are now exposed for what they are. In the last KUCCPS list admission, hundreds of courses did not attract any applicants. This came hot in the heels of the decision by many universities to close outpost campuses since they had become financially unsustainable and academically unattractive.
The third flank exposed as soft underbelly is the number and quality of lecturers. Universities relied heavily on part-time staff in the outpost campuses in far-flung and remote areas and therefore easily escaped the close scrutiny of the Commission for University Education. The labour industry was the first to raise the red flag questioning the versatility of the thousands of graduates being churned out every end year.
The government is now alarmed at the levels of inefficiency at the universities and demanding urgent reforms. However, if the response to the current crisis is as kneejerk as the previous efforts, then the remedies will be as short-lived.
The challenges the universities are facing today present an excellent opportunity for education leaders to critically examine the malaise. This will enable them to prescribe long-lasting and dynamic policy frameworks that will enable universities self-regulate, self-sustain and be globally competitive.
This is where the Differentiated Unit Cost comes into play. DUC is an offshoot of an earlier theory of Full-Time Staff/Student Equivalent (FTSE) developed in the mid 1990s. It proposes that universities rationalise the cost of each of the courses they offer. It would then be established that each course programme has its uniqueness and requirements that make their respective costs not uniform. This will debunk the myth of flat rate fees charged for all courses as envisaged in the Sh16,000 tuition fees.
This proposal has been developed and presented in various fora to university leaders and feedback incorporated. Once the cost of each course programme is determined then the fees levied would be shared on a proportion by the government, the university and student. The portion of the student would then be charged as fees and be met directly or supported through financing agencies like the Helb.
In this proposal, courses have been banded into Humanities, Social Sciences, Arts, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Technology, and Medical Sciences. Parameters that involve variables and constants have been developed to give each course programme a market rate cost that is globally competitive.
The government would then identify the areas of knowledge strategic to national development in the short and long terms. These areas would determine the numbers of students sponsored through the Exchequer. The Ministry of Education then indicates to each university the number of students sponsored by the government and in which courses.
The respective universities thereafter set aside their portion of the student cost and ask the students to pay their portion as tuition fees. The rest of the available spaces in the course programme capacities would be open to other qualified candidates on privately sponsorship basis.
The DUC model would cure some perennial shortcomings in the Kenyan university education system. In the first instance, it would compel universities to offer only competitive and relevant courses. Universities would not mount courses that do not resonate with the government policies and the general labour market.
Senates will be forced to regularly review their curricular to make them consistent with the changing times. At the same time, they will be reluctant to introduce new courses unless they are satisfied the respective courses will be well received by the stakeholders, most importantly the industry.
Secondly, the universities will have to rationalise their respective staffing levels. No institution will have to keep lecturers whose departments have no attractive course to the public. Lecturers would be on contracts that demand result-based performance in terms of course appeal to prospective students and employability of their graduates. DUC also implies that eventually not all lecturers at the same grade will be offered equal remuneration. As the cost of tuition will be course specific, so will be the cost of staffing.
Universities should in future be allowed the latitude to set their respective terms of service uniquely to be competitive. They will stop relying on the power of government to brutally force minimum wages down the throats of staff. This is already happening in the public sector, for example not all research institutes pay similar salaries. The other benefit of DUC will be to rationalise funding. This is probably the most important of all its advantages.
Public universities will henceforth receive capitation based on the number of government-sponsored students they enroll and the type of courses taken by the students. The quality of academic activities within each university will determine the reputation of its courses. This would subsequently improve its marketability and global competitiveness. The universities whose leadership and staff take their work seriously will flourish. They will be strategic and contribute significantly to national and global development. Those who dither and sit on their laurels will be overtaken by circumstances, close shop and obliterated by history.
CS Magoha will not have to physically move around to close down a redundant institution, DUC will make them shape up or ship out.