Privatisation of public universities headed for failure

Monday, January 30th, 2023 04:00 | By
University of Nairobi entrance. PHOTO/Courtesy.

The Government now wants to privatise public universities. This we have on the authority of the Cabinet Secretary  Trade and Industry, Moses Kuria. Kuria says the Government has already identified investors from Indonesia and the US who are ready to invest money in public universities. Really?

Public universities are completely broke, and have debts they can never pay. The genesis of the problem of universities is the Kibaki-era expansion that saw the en masse swallowing of middle level colleges, to appease political constituencies. Universities now dot every corner of Kenya, most very underutilised.

The Government funds the establishment of all public universities, which has been growing exponentially. Cash-strapped, the Government is now desperately running helter-skelter looking for a way out.  The latest fad seems to be privatisation. This approach is headed for spectacular failure. Before embarking on any half-baked solutions, hard questions need to be asked, and harsh decisions made based on evidence.

Is Kenya over-universitied?

South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has 26 universities, all public, with a total enrolment of a million students.  Kenya, with a population of 53 million, has 76 universities both public and private, with a total enrolment of 560,000 students.  Out of the top 10 universities in Africa, eight are from South Africa, with only the American University in Cairo, Egypt, at sixth, and the University of Nairobi at ninth position, breaking this dominance. Clearly, Kenya is missing something here. The chickens of the rabid expansion of universities have come home to roost. The current problems are a direct consequence of politicisation of university education, there’s no running away from it!

Nothing will work unless President William Ruto makes the decision to depoliticize university education. Period. The first step is to issue a moratorium on registering or even giving any more charters to universities. This should be followed by a rationalisation programme for public universities. This rationalization must tackle numbers of universities, courses, staffing levels, appropriateness of teaching and non-teaching staff and a brand new business model.Other critical issues are begging for answers. Upto now, only University of Nairobi has developed and implemented a drastic restructuring plan. What are the rest waiting for? 

Even if the Government was to go the route of privatization, investors don’t buy just anything— they put their money in bankable projects. Currently, public universities are basket cases. And restructuring is not, as most vice chancellors seem to think, slashing jobs. They need expert advise to assist them in this process. This is where Government should be laying emphasis on, not prescribing solutions before conducting a thorough evaluation and development of a turnaround strategy. Maybe all that is needed is a completely independent commercial wing in the universities for resource mobilisation.  And public resources must stop going to private universities. These are businesses. If they cannot raise enough fees from students to remain afloat, they close! These are the political decisions messing university education in Kenya.

Urgently, a team of experts on university education funding should be commissioned to evaluate these institutions and give options to turn them into viable, largely self-financing entities. If the consultants advise that privatization is the best option with the appropriate mitigation measures, then so be it. Kuria is putting the cart before the horse!

Finance departments of universities need to be run by finance professionals. That’s why finances at public universities are in shambles.  Access is non-negotiable. Majority of students in Kenya cannot afford full cost recovery for university education. The narrative that “academy” parents should meet costs of their children’s university education is delusional. Not only are there not enough such parents, but many such students are already in private universities anyway. This issue requires much deeper thinking than is currently being demonstrated.

 So, trade minister should pull the brake on this privatization train. It simply looks like the Government seeking an easy way out by dumping problematic universities and washing its hands off the problem. Not so fast, Sir!

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