President Obama is not the only politician that has been using the bully pulpit to promise reform of higher education. As the first major Kenyan election since the infamous 2007 sectarian violence approaches its climax, the two leading candidates have made bold promises to expand public post-secondary programs.
Many of the specifics from both candidates are undoubtedly hollow hyperbole that will be quickly recalibrated once the ballots are closed. Spending on higher education as a proportion of per capita GDP in Kenya and many sub-Saharan African countries is already among the highest in the world and the new President will find it difficult to find the additional money required to meet these promises amid many other costly campaign promises. But these promises do provide a number of insights about the current state and future direction of higher education in the country.
First, the mere fact that higher education is a relatively prominent plank in national election platforms reflects growing pressure from the middle class on the issue. Although radical reform is unlikely, the pressure from tens of thousands of students who are struggling to find quality, affordable spaces in universities every year (the article cites 76k who could not access public institutions, and that is just those who technically qualified for university) and their families will continue to force some change.
Second, the solutions offered by the candidate are largely driven by the public sector, highlighting a reported bias in Kenya towards public higher education. However, a few measures to increase the role of the private sector have been slipped in, hopefully a glimpse of a deeper pragmatism about the prospects of the government both financing and operating enough quality supply to meet exploding demand from students. The specific measures (incentives for businesses to sponsor student fees) are likely to be grossly insufficient so the true test will come in how the government reacts as private providers step forward to play a much larger role in providing and financing (i.e., loans) in the coming years.
Lastly, the pledges are focused on affordability and access – quality is conspicuously absent. This follows the trend we have seen in the US and other countries where the political imperative to increase access to higher education drives rapid expansion of supply with only superficial attention to quality. If Kenya continues down this path, it is only postponing the pain since those same tens of thousands of young people will have degrees but no skills or jobs.
An ideal vision for the future of Kenya’s higher education would both set out ambitious paths for increased access and recognize that traditional models are unable to deliver the quality that the country needs at the prices it can afford. Calling for that required innovation may not win votes among the existing university staff who have already taken to the streets, but it will provide the better future for which young people and their families are clamoring. Regardless of the politicians’ rhetoric, we are optimistic that these innovations will quickly take root in Kenya, following in the footsteps of the country’s dynamism in technology and other sectors. There is little doubt that Kenya’s higher education will undergo fascinating evolution over the next decade – watch this space.