Unpaid or delayed salaries and unremitted statutory dues continue to define the harsh financial times at public universities in East Africa as many struggle to fund higher education and are considering passing on the burden to the students.
Traditionally seen as centres of excellence, and research, public universities in the region have now been reduced to overcrowded halls, underpaid lecturers and neglected facilities.
In mid-March, Makerere University, one of the oldest public universities in the region, said it was slashing undergraduate student enrolment by 5,000 to cope, while raising postgraduate slots.
Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, the Vice Chancellor Makerere University, said they will resort to this to reduce the burden of running the institution. Usually, postgraduate learners bring in more money as they are mostly fully funded, and not subsidised.
Time to do research
“Graduate courses pay more than undergraduate programmes. And for every undergraduate we reduce, we increase by two at post graduate level,” the Makerere boss told The EastAfrican, adding that the main reason is to reduce pressure on lecturers so that they can have time to do research, rather than earn more income for the institution.
Makerere – Uganda’s biggest and oldest public university – is currently bursting at the seams with an enrolment of over 35,000. It only received Ush369.3 billion (nearly $100 million) for the financial year 2022/2023 to be distributed among the 47 budgeting units of the institution.
It has received Ush30 billion ($8 million) per annum since 2019 under the government’s Research and Innovation Fund but academics say this is a drop in the ocean as it cannot cover many eligible scholars to undertake projects.
Makerere’s decision came after Uganda’s Parliament on March 14 rejected a new funding request – through a supplementary budget brought eight months into the financial year – for Ush44.87 billion ($12 million), meant to fund several universities’ education skills development and sports programmes.
At the start of this financial year, Uganda’s Secretary to the Treasury Ramathan Ggoobi had warned heads of public universities that government was walking a fiscal tight-rope and would not entertain requests for supplementary budgets.
But even though Treasury foots over quarters of public universities budgets, the institutions still struggle to pay their lecturers well, retain the right academic staff levels and invest in teaching materials to churn out finished products that are ready for the job market.
“The biggest cost for any university is salaries. Government covers 80 percent of our budget, and most, if not all of it goes to paying salaries,” says Prof Nawangwe.
The problem is not unique to Uganda. Kenyan universities have been forced to consider far-reaching reforms to stay afloat after years of financial doldrums. Many of them are struggling to pay staff and deliver services to students whose fees are subsidised.
Public university vice chancellors last month resolved to triple tuition fees paid by government-sponsored students to $369 per academic year, to shore up revenues. President William Ruto, who was elected on the promise to support the ‘hustlers’, disapproves the proposal.
Kenyan universities are considering a reduction in the number of government-sponsored students in favour of self-sponsored ones whose fees are higher and independent of state capitation.
Essentially, this will return the self-sponsored programmes colloquially known as parallel programmes where students enroll on the terms of paying full non-subsidised fees. But it could kill the ambition of the government to improve access to higher education, initially limited as institutions pegged capacity to the number of accommodation beds. This has been controversial and seen as counter to the current government’s campaign promises.
Already, the University of Nairobi has scrapped 175 programmes and closed down all its satellite campuses, even after raising its administrative fees and more-than-doubling several post-graduate programme charges.
Egerton University has followed suit removing eight undergraduate degree programmes earlier this month, with the vice chancellor saying redundancies were imminent in the coming days.
Despite their current woes, President Ruto’s government last year slashed the varsities’ development budget by $21.5 million, forcing many of them to delay many ongoing projects, some of which are already overdue.
Their capitation has also been consistently underfunded by the Exchequer, with Treasury allocating funds way below their requested budget. This financial year, for instance, universities were allocated only $338 million of the $553 million they requested.
University staff have also lately decried delayed pay and sometimes no pay at all, with some downing their tools and taking to the streets to protest, even as reports indicate that varsities are wallowing in immense debt.
So far, the higher learning institutions have accumulated debt amounting to over $465 million, mostly in the form of unremitted deductions to pension schemes, National Hospital Insurance Fund, and Pay-as-You Earn taxes owed to the Kenya Revenue Authority.
To help address the universities’ woes, the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms had recommended that the state should bail out the institutions, but the president sought a review. However, the University Funding Board is considering a new funding model that seeks to have the government sponsor only students from needy families, shifting from the current model where all students who score a minimum of C+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education are eligible for government sponsorship.
If passed, this model could deepen the challenge as public universities will have to compete for students with private institutions, some of which have better amenities and resources.
Debts continue to pile
“Many universities face challenges in paying staff salaries and their suppliers. The debts continue to pile by the day,” said Kenya’s Education Cabinet Secretary, Ezekiel Machogu, after meeting vice chancellors at the Biennial Kenya Universities Funding Conference last month.
“This sorry state of affairs is a threat to the universities’ ability to perform their primary mandate of teaching and research. If action is not taken, it’s just a question of time before we experience total collapse.”
Emmanuel Manyasa, CEO of Kenyan education think-tank Usawa Agenda says some of the proposed changes could change the fortunes of the universities, but only if properly executed and intra-institutional reforms implemented as well.
The road to ruin
“We must first ask ourselves why our universities are where they are today. While it is partly because the government has failed to remit enough money to them, it is also because when there was a boom between 2003 and 2012, the institutions went into a mad expansion without a clear plan for the future,” he told The EastAfrican.
Did public universities bite more than they could chew? Uganda’s Kyambogo University has an enrolment of over 33,000 students but insufficient teaching staff. Prof Nawangwe says that university lecturers, some teaching in various institutions, cannot find sufficient time to devote to research.
Donors have chipped in, but it is still not enough. In January this year, the European Union gave eight universities $4.32 million in grants for research at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Bugema University, Muni University, Makerere University, Uganda Martyrs University, Mountain of the Moon University and Makerere University Business School.
At the 12th Academia-Public-Private Partnership Forum and exhibition held in Dar es Salaam this week, it emerged that funding for skills development and research remains a problem for institutions of high learning in the region.
The forum called for strong partnerships between the institutions and private sector companies in the East African Community in order to produce graduates with skills.
The German government committed $2.7 million additional funds to the EAC skilling project to strengthen its support and initiatives in the master’s programme, digital skills trainings and entrepreneurship support.
Tanzania’s Ministry for Education, Science and Technology says it is currently in discussions with education experts to get their views on financing modalities that would focus the areas of prioritisation, resource mobilisation and social-economic impacts.
The Minister, Prof Adolf Mkenda, told the Dar meeting that the government is looking to get views that would help to transform its financing scheme in higher education delivery.
“It is our responsibility to reflect and interrogate whether we are on the right path as far as higher education financing is concerned,” Prof Mkenda said.
Tanzania has issued higher education loans totalling Tsh5.37 trillion ($229 billion) about 654,919 beneficiaries (students) during the past 27 years. It may rely on donors to sustain the programme, or endear the private investors, according to the Minister, or at least encourage students to look for alternative sources of education funding. The government also wants to review the course content to drop those disciplines that don’t add value.
“There is a large group of young people in Tanzania who are not prepared to be self-reliant when they graduate from colleges,” said President Samia Suluhu at a recent meeting in Dar.
“That trend has lasted for several years now, but we want to stop it, hence a curriculum review [is needed],” she said.
Tanzania government had allocated students loan amounting Tsh656 billion ($280 million) for 177,000 students selected to join private and public universities and who qualified for education loans through its current, 2022/2023 annual budget.
The World Bank currently supports Tanzania’s education sector through the five-year (2021-26) Higher Education Economic Transformation (HEET) project.
Launched in 2021 at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro Region the $425 million (Tsh972 billion) HEET project is aimed to promote higher education as a catalytic force in Tanzania’s economy.
Reporting by Julius Barigaba, Vincent Owino and Apolinari Tairo