Surge in demand for private university places.

Kenya’s private university sector is poised for a major influx of students as more learners opt for these institutions, reversing a near-decade trajectory.

In a shift underscoring the growing appeal of private higher education, a record 18,557 students have applied for placement in private universities for the upcoming academic year – nearly double the 9,622 enrolled in 2023, according to newly released data from the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS). Conversely, KUCCPS data reveals that 134,743 students were placed in public universities for the 2024 academic year.

This surge in demand coincides with an expansion of opportunities, as 35 private institutions have collectively declared a capacity of 57,322 vacancies for the 2024-25 cycle. Under Kenya’s revised higher education funding model, students now have the flexibility to pursue their academic journeys at either public or private universities, with those opting for the private route, forgoing government scholarships, but retaining access to student loans.

According to Dr Patrick Mbataru of Kenyatta University in a past interview, “The room for expansion in East Africa is getting even more squeezed and universities must look further afield if they wish to grow.” This sentiment underscores the increasing competition and the strategic moves by institutions like Mount Kenya University to attract more students.

Which institutions are attracting the students?

At the forefront of this private university preference is Mount Kenya University, which has emerged as the top destination, receiving 3,226 placements against its declared capacity of 6,103 openings. The institution is closely followed by KCA Kenya College of Accountancy University (2,074 placements), Zetech University (1,703), Kabarak University (1,653), and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (1,218).

The turn of events is expected to hurt public universities in the coming years. Until recently, universities would make up for the shortfall in government disbursements by raising revenue from enrolling self-sponsored students in the erstwhile lucrative parallel degree programmes.

These parallel programmes allowed universities to admit additional students who paid higher tuition fees compared to those covered by government sponsorship, providing an essential revenue stream to offset cuts in government funding.

However, with recent policy changes and a decline in demand for these programmes, universities are now facing financial difficulties as they can no longer rely on this once-lucrative source of income.

There has been a sharp decline in the number of self-sponsored students over the past three years since the government lowered the entry requirement for high school leavers to join universities.

Public universities rely largely on government subsidies to run their operations. However, the government capitation currently covers only 57% of the learners instead of the target 80%. This allocation is mainly applied to pay staff salaries, leaving little or no funding for promoting quality.

Disparities in private sector

KUCCPS data also highlights disparities within the private university ecosystem, with some institutions struggling to attract applicants. The International Leadership University, for instance, declared a capacity of 300 students but received only one application for placement, while the Management University of Africa secured a mere 12 placements for its 750 vacancies.

The surge in student interest aligns with the Kenyan government’s increasing utilisation of private universities to complement public institutions’ capacity.

According to KUCCPS data over the past six years, a staggering 86,270 state-sponsored students have been enrolled in private universities across the country. This strategic partnership between public and private sectors has allowed the government to expand access to higher education while alleviating strain on public university resources.

From 2016 to 2021, private university admissions of government-funded students showed a rising trend, but also fluctuations. In 2016, private institutions admitted 10,984 students while, in 2017, the admission was 17,363; 2018 (12,656); 2019 (17,511); 2020 (27,756), but a drop in 2021 (12,000).

The fluctuating pattern of admissions to private universities in Kenya over the past few years can be attributed to the influence of policy changes, economic conditions and the far-reaching impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kenyan government’s decision in 2014 to integrate private universities into the higher education landscape, allowing them to admit government-funded students, initially spurred an increase in enrolments at these institutions. This policy shift aimed to address financial challenges faced by universities and expand access to higher education.

Additionally, economic factors, including funding cuts to public universities, prompted many students to explore alternatives in the private sector. As public institutions grappled with financial constraints and, in some cases, raised tuition fees, private universities emerged as a viable option, contributing to their rising admission numbers in the initial years after integration into the system.

Also Read: Scholarships Portal University, TVET Students Now Open.

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