KENYA's government is to grant charters to nine private universities on condition that they help meet the country's need for degree courses in science and technology. The private universities will be able to offer degrees and diplomas independently of their parent institutions abroad.
At the moment Kenya has three chartered, private universities. These are the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, the University of Eastern Africa, and Baraton and Daystar University, all sponsored by Christian missions. The three have a total of 3,400 students, of whom 52 per cent are women.
Private universities' ability to attract students has led the Commission for Higher Education to review the situation at a time when admissions to the five public universities have fallen. Apart from the United States International University in Africa, the rest of those in the line-up for state accreditation are church-oriented.
They include Africa Nazarene University, St Paul's Theological College, Pan African Christian College and East Africa School of Theology, Nairobi International School of Theology, Scott Theological College and Kenya Highlands Bible College. One of the conditions of the charter is expansion of curricula to include a variety of degree programmes and diplomas. Most of the universities now offer theology, business and fi-nance, computer science and some social science degree courses.
Kenya is lacking scientific and technical courses because of a shortage of facilities. But, according to William Milne, a labour economist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, most of the private universities are still duplicating arts-based programmes, which have low ratings in the Kenyan job market.
Dr Milne has investigated the problems facing Kenya's tertiary education with the help of an international team of experts. He be-lieves private universities will have to alter their regimes if they are to play a crucial role in education and training.
Apart from the University of Eastern Africa, which offers agriculture and nursing, the rest only have social sciences and business programmes besides theological and church leadership courses. Most have a serious shortage of staff and rely heavily on lecturers from public universities.
Even the well-established private universities such as the United States International University, Daystar and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa have no staff-development programmes and rely on part-time lecturers.
Expectations are that the government will soon urge the private universities seeking accreditation to reform their curricula to admit more students. According to Joseph Mungai, the secretary of the commission, private universities will have to conform to certain standards to gain that accreditation.
Professor Mungai says it will be mandatory for private universities to have diversified curricula before they can be accredited. "We do not want to be seen to be giving charters to institutions that are operating below the acceptable standards of a university," he said.
The issue is that many universities do not have the capacity or facilities of a higher institution. But even with an increasing number of secondary-school leavers aiming for higher education, many private universities have failed to offer a good alternative.
Out of the 150,000 students who recently sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, only about 10,000 will be admitted to study at the public universities. Even then, about 70 per cent will be registered in the arts, education, and business and finance degree courses.