Kenyan Public Universities – Do They Have an Unfair Advantage?

Lisa R. Parker

University education in Kenya has expanded in leaps and bounds over the last twenty or so years. Whereas previously the country had only one university; the University of Nairobi, today there are seven public universities plus many more private universities. The number of form four leavers has been rising over the years and so has been a demand for tertiary education. The higher education industry is now a multi-billion shilling industry thanks in large part to the insatiable appetite for education by a majority of Kenyans.

In deed, many Kenyan parents would literally sell everything in order for their children to have access to the best quality of education. The inception of the parallel degree programmes further liberalized the higher education sector and offered opportunities to many students who had otherwise been locked out of the system. For many years the country’s public universities admitted about ten thousand students or so every year. This number was tagged on the bed capacity that each university had. Even though in theory the entry grade into state universities was a C+, this was not practical. For a student to get admission to a public university, he/she had to score a B and above. Admission to competitive courses such as medicine required that you score perfect As in almost all subjects. In deed, nowadays the competition for the marketable courses is so intense that sometimes the Joint admission Board has to resort to numerical marks to decide who is going to get a place in the universities.

Though parallel programmes have been good for state universities, they have had a negative effect on the private universities. Whereas previously many rejected students would enroll in private universities, this is not the case anymore.

In addition, public universities get government subsidies to the tune of kshs. 70,000 per student each year. This is unlike the private universities where the students bear the full cost of running the university. How then can they be expected to compete with the public universities? This is perhaps the reason why many of the private universities offer courses in only a few academic disciplines. Most of them offer business, computer and art related courses. This is perhaps because setting up of these courses is relatively easy and does not come with a financial burden. Though the private universities pay their lecturers slightly more than the public universities, many professors actually prefer to work in the public universities because of perceived career benefits.

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