Simon Gicharu, the chairman of the National Association of Private Universities in Kenya (NAPUK) and founder of Mt Kenya University answers questions from the public via the Sunday Nation.
The perception out there is that private universities are expensive and a preserve for the rich, mainly because of the fees they charge. To what extent is this true? How do you intend to demystify this perception? Evans Njaramba, Riverside, Nairobi
It is good you refer to it as perception, it remains merely that. We have hosted many poor students and they’ll tell you there is no much difference in terms of cost.
Recent changes to the way KCSE is administered and marked has seen fewer students getting grade C+ and above to qualify for direct entry to universities unlike before. It means private universities have to compete with public ones for government-sponsored students. How has this affected student populations in private universities? Is it a fair competition between private and public universities given the advantages the latter enjoys like government sponsorship and subsidisation of fees? Leonard Mainye.
It is true that fewer students are making it to campus today compared to a few years ago but the key to attracting learners is by offering quality and market driven courses, something we have heavily invested in.
Leading universities are currently talking reforms as a way of coping with hard economic times exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, what are private institutions of higher learning doing to stay afloat? Mike Masinde, Bungoma
All sectors of the economy are in turmoil. Whereas universities are independent of each other, and the association’s mandate is not to dictate to members how to run their institutions, I’m of the view that outsourcing non-core functions like security, cleaning and transport could help address the high operating costs. The solution lies in innovation and heavy reliance on ICT, diversification and operational efficiency.
For some time now, tertiary institutions offering diploma courses have questioned the rationale of universities venturing into diploma or certificate courses instead of focusing on degree programmes. On their part, universities have tried to defend their position on this including court litigation. Should universities be allowed to offer diploma and certificate courses? What will then happen to the tertiary colleges? Komen Moris, Eldoret
We are operating in an environment where access to post-secondary education is limited. Maybe until such a time that we finally have enough institutions offering diploma courses we can bar universities admitting such students.
Why should the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Services, a government body, place students in private universities? Nelima Wekesa, Kitale
Students have a legal right to choose which universities they would like to attend. KUCCPS simply asks both private and public universities to declare their capacities and post their degree programmes for students to choose. It then places students according to their choices. Even the National Hospital Insurance Fund pays claims for patients in both private and public universities.
Private universities have been accused of concentrating more on programmes that lead to white collar jobs such as business and arts. Is that so and if so why? Lilian Kemunto, Kisii
That was in the past. If you look at the variety of courses on offer in private universities, you will see that most of them have invested heavily in medicine, engineering, architecture and agriculture.
Do private universities contribute to research? Peter Odunga, Kisumu
Universities exist to teach, research and offer community service.
Many public universities are known for being centres of excellence in certain fields. Are private universities behind on this front? Irene Kimani, Maragua
Not at all. Many private universities have established their own niches in the scholarly world. For example, Daystar is known for excellence in journalism and mass communication, Strathmore is renowned for business etc. Private universities offer a rich variety of courses but they have their own specialties for which they are known and respected.
Why do we need private universities in Kenya? Esther Njeri, Ruiru
We need to expand the level of opportunities in higher education for Kenyans. As more and more Kenyans get opportunities to study, against the background of Free Primary Education, a subsidised secondary education and the push to have 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary, in future we are going to have more and more Kenyans qualifying for higher education and this is where private universities come in.
Being a private investor in higher education yourself, would you advise students to join private universities rather than public ones? Luke Marete, Maua
I would not want to persuade any learner to join whichever category. The choice should be dictated by the degree programmes on offer, the learning environment, faculty, reputation and so on. Both categories are strong in their own rights. We have seen top-notch engineers, architects or lawyers from both private and public categories.
Why do your members choose to invest in universities when secondary school academies seem to have higher and quicker returns? Bridget Masolia, Kaimosi
You’re quite correct in that academies have higher returns because they charge between Sh200,000 and Sh300,000 in a year while universities charge around Sh70, 000. I can’t speak for my members on why they chose to go for universities but I know most of them are passionate educationists who started off with other private primary, secondary schools or colleges and then naturally expanded to higher education. Many investors will tell you that they are driven by passion to expand access to higher education.
Sir, why are some of your members not yet signing up to KUCCPS to admit government-sponsored students? Juliette Odoyo, Migori
Members retain the right to sign up with KUCCPS or not. For us at MKU, we are happy to partner with the government to enable more students do courses of their dream.
Private universities, as the name suggests, are private business entities for the owners. How do you balance between quality education and profits for the owners? Anastacia Kiseki, Katani
Private universities are no-profit making entities run by board of trustees.
Looking at the many challenges facing public universities including low funding and inadequate accommodation, it is evident that private universities are worse off to the point some have started abolishing faculties together with closing some satellite campuses. What is the future of private university education in Kenya? Dan Murugu, Nakuru
It is true that the prevailing economic circumstances has meant that universities go slow on satellite campuses, but this is a stopgap measure. The future can only be brighter. The world over, some of the most prestigious universities are private. All we need is to be innovative and ensure the student gets quality.
Mount Kenya University has adopted an expansionist model of opening campuses in all major towns in Kenya and elsewhere in the region. As the founder, what can you say are special attributes that help MKU to thrive when other private universities are down? Dan Murugu, Nakuru
Expansion is informed by the demand. When demand was high, we opened up campuses in major towns. When the demand dwindled, we converted some of our campuses into TVETs and ODEL centres. We also segregated a few into specialised centres of excellence.
There is a general perception that private universities are driven by the bottom line rather than quality. Is this the case? James Mutinda, Voi
All universities are supervised and regulated by the Commission for University Education, which works closely with universities to ensure that the appropriate learning infrastructure is in place, the faculty is qualified to teach, the degree programmes are relevant and that the final product is top-notch.