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Kenya: Kibaki’s educational legacy in Kenya – well-intentioned, with disastrous consequences

Kenya’s former president, Mwai Kibaki, who passed away last weekwas widely hailed for his economic transformation of Kenya, first as finance minister from 1969 to 1982 and then as Kenya’s third president from 2002 to 2013.

But Kibaki also left a lasting legacy in Kenya’s education sector.

Kibaki left his mark on education in two areas: expanding access to education and adopting a business-style model for universities.

When Kibaki came to power, there was a crisis in access to education, both in basic education and in higher education.

Many charges introduced by schools (such as building funds and activity fees) had increased the cost of education for the poor. Primary school enrollment was approximately 86% but, in 2002, the transition rate from primary to secondary was only 46%.

The increasing demand for university education, due to population growth, limited access to those who had achieved exceptional results in secondary education. Moreover, the governance and functioning of universities had been limited by political interference from the political class.

Kibaki’s goals were to expand access to both primary and university education, and to make universities more efficient and self-sufficient by reforming management and commercializing them.

These contributions, while positive, also had their drawbacks.

Free primary education

When he took office as president in 2003, Kibaki launched the much-loved Free primary education program. Under it, all tuition fees in primary schools were abolished. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Primary school fees were first abolished in 1978 but, due to declining state support, schools introduced a myriad of non-school fees. This frustrated the goal of free primary education.

Kibaki’s government strategy assigned each public school subsidizes based on student enrolment. This allowed them to buy textbooks and cover other running costs. This significated increasing the education budget from 12.4% of the national budget in 2004 to 17.4% in 2005.

The Free Primary Education Program activated millions of poor children to educate. It is estimated that primary schooling is passed from 6 million in 2000 to 7.4 million in 2004.

Free primary education was, and continues to be, a noble program that deals with equal access to primary education. Nevertheless, its implementation had disastrous consequences for equity and quality of education.

No additional classrooms were built and no additional teachers were hired. This resulted in overcrowded classrooms with overworked teachers. In fact, the teacher-student ratio increases by one teacher for 40 students, to one teacher for 60 students. The deterioration in the quality of public schools has become evident and poor performance national exams have proven it.

Those who could afford it pulled their children out of successful public schools and enrolled them in expensive private academies. It was under Kibaki that the country saw the rise of high-cost private schools populated by middle- and upper-class scions. Indeed, enrollment in private academies almost tripled between 2005 and 2009 from 4.4% to 10.5%.

I also believe it nurtured a class of educational entrepreneurs whose interest in education was simply for profit rather than the holistic education of the child.

Equally troubling for the free private education program was weak financial oversight that resulted in a massive theft of public funds. While some reports from 2009 noted that Ksh 178 million ($1.54 million) of program funds was wasted by senior education officials and headteachers, other reports estimate that billions could have been stolen.

When elected in 2002, President Kibaki declared corruption would cease be a way of life in his government. However, Kibaki’s vaunted anti-transplant campaign has found its thread in his pet education project.

Commercialization of universities

Kibaki’s reform footprints in education are also still evident in the university sector. Kibaki’s presidential term saw the greatest expansion of public university education in the country. When he took office, Kenya had only six public universities. When he left in 2013, the number had grown to 22. Most of the 17 (77%) public universities were created in one yearbetween 2012-2013.

Student registration grown up from 71,832 in 2003 to 195,428 in 2013. Kibaki considered access to quality higher education to be the main driver of economic growth. He argued that Kenya’s university education should be benchmarked against global standards and market needs.

Kibaki’s ultimate goal for universities was for them to generate their own revenue and be less dependent on the government. Until now, public universities have depended on state funding for development, maintenance, and operation, supplemented by modest state-regulated tuition fees.

To do this, he commercialized the universities and set about giving them corporate-like governance structures. He depoliticized the chancery by appointing business leaders and academics as chancellors of public universities. It was a dramatic break with the past. His predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, was chancellor of all public universities.

Under this new leadership structure, Kibaki expected that policies and decisions at universities would be driven by financial and academic considerations rather than political calculations. This meant that universities also had to plan for resources that would come from elsewhere, rather than from the public purse.

It is the policy that has seen public universities launch a series of initiatives in an attempt to commercialize their operations. Companies included:

academic programs that included parallel programs, i.e. the admission of additional self-sponsored students who paid higher tuition fees than normal government-funded students

the creation of mortuaries: university medical faculties began to offer mortuary services to the public for a fee

creation of branch campuses to admit more paying self-sponsored students beyond the immediate location of the main university

But Kibaki’s vision of vibrant, well-funded public universities generating additional revenue to supplement government grants did not materialize.