Death of Kenyan students at Makerere University is a sign of greater problems
By Dr. Maurice Amutabi
The death of two Kenyan students at Makerere University in Uganda as a result of tensions emerging from Students’ Guild elections is an indication of greater problems facing Kenyan students in Uganda. The tensions have been building for over five years now, because of the perceived notion by Ugandan youth that Kenyans are taking over their places at universities, and dominating. What is happening to Kenyan students in Ugandan universities happened to many Nigerian and other African students in India in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were seen as invaders. There were many times when African students were killed in India, just because they were too many. Makerere University has close to 40,000 registered students, making it one of the largest in this region. What is remarkable is that about 25,000 students are self sponsored, and of these 15,000 are Kenyans. The fees they pay is responsible for a significant portion of the recurrent budget of the university. In other words, Makerere needs the Kenyan students. In 2008, I visited some Ugandan universities and was surprised by the number of Kenyan students attending these universities, especially those studying Law, Business and genera arts and science degrees that can be offered in Kenya. There are very few students pursuing courses in medicine and engineering. Why are Kenyan students pursuing these general courses at Makerere? Much of it has to do with the name of the university. I noticed that many of the students attending Makere have had either a father or close relatives attending Makerere during its heydays in the past. There is therefore a tremendous sense of nostalgia with people who send their children to Makerere. In fact some of them were parents who would have really loved to attend Makerere in their youth, but since they did meet the required qualifications, they want to fulfill their dreams through their children. But there is something else that attracts Kenyan students to Makerere. Some of them have attended form five and six in Uganda and Makerere provides a clear path for them, than if they attended universities back home. The other reason is that the fees charged at Makerere is relatively lower than most public universities in Kenya. Some students said that the cost of living is much lower in Uganda than Kenya, because rent is low and food is cheap.
Tension between Kenyan and Ugandan students has been building over socialization issues – where Ugandan and Kenyan youth perceive each other as going for what is their legitimate social space and targeting their perceived potential partners. But it is not just Makerere where Kenyan students dominate. Kenyans dominate other universities as well. Uganda has about seven public universities which include Makerere University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Kyambogo University, Gulu University and Busitema University. What is intriguing is that Kenyans prefer to attend Makerere University and private universities. I was surprised to find very few Kenyan students at Kyambogo, perhaps because it focuses more on education degrees, and yet Kenyans are into law, business and other high sounding (but non professional) degrees. The oldest private university in Uganda is the Islamic University in Uganda at Mbale, founded in 1988. There are slightly above 20 private universities in Uganda, which include, Kumi University, Bugema University, Ndejje University, Nkumba University, Busoga University, Kabale University, Aga Khan University (Kampala), All Saints University (Lira), Uganda Pentecostal University (Fort Portal), Uganda Christian University (Mukono), Ankole Western University, Bishop Stuart University (Mbarara), Fairland University (Jinja), Muteesa I Royal University (Masaka), International Health Sciences University (Kampala), Mountain of the Moon University (Fort Portal), St. Lawrence University (Kampala), Uganda Martyrs University (Nkozi), Lugazi University (Mukono) and the almost similarly named Kampala University and Kampala International University, among others. The Islamic University in Uganda has attracted a significant number of Kenyans, especially from the Coast and North Eastern Province. However, I was shocked to notice the high number of students pursuing law degrees at the other private universities in Uganda. In at least two of these private institutions, over 90 per cent of the students were from Kenya. There are also many private universities in Uganda that are not accredited and many Kenyan students are the ones who have been victims of these backstreet universities. This reveals that there is a crisis and need for expansion of higher opportunities in Kenya. The recently released 2009 KCSE results revealed that about 100,000 will miss university places (got C+ and above) and many of them are likely to head across the border, increasing tensions in Uganda.
Although university education in Kenya has expanded rapidly in the recent past, it is clear that the universities (both public and private) need to expand and create more room. Of the public universities, the University of Nairobi, Moi University, Kenyatta University and Egerton University should not enroll less than 5,000 students annually because they have the potential and can create the capacity to do so, especially using the newly created campuses and university colleges. It is different for public universities like Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture (JKUAT) and Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) which are science-oriented might take a while to expand infrastructure before upping their admission numbers. They can however help in creating more arts and social science spaces because in many universities these are the programs that support science and engineering courses. Many successful universities often run both science and liberal arts education, because the latter help to subsidize the former. Arts courses can easily be taught in classes of up to 200 without compromising standards but not science courses. There is need to balance expansion in arts and science education. If this is not checked, there is likelihood of having more arts degree graduates in Kenya compared to those with science degrees. Some education experts say that there is no problem with this because the demand and supply curves of education always balance out naturally. They argue that availability of jobs will always drive demand. This is true in the West, where there is always a cycle for demand for science degrees, then when too many are produced, those with arts degrees become marketable, then it reverses after few years. That is why many education experts were not surprised two years ago when Kenya shortage of history and religious studies teachers. All countries face shortage of teachers in science and mathematics.
Of the newly created 12 public university colleges (Kenya Polytechnic University College, Kisii University College, Mombasa Polytechnic University College, Multimedia University College of Kenya (formerly KCCT), Pwani University College (Kilifi), Narok University College (Narok), Meru University College of Science and Technology, Bondo University College, Kabianga University College, Chuka University College and Laikipia University College) only 5 are science and technology-based (Kimathi University College of Technology, Meru University College of Science and Technology, Kenya Polytechnic University College, Mombasa Polytechnic University College and Multimedia University College of Kenya). There is need to encourage more colleges to offer science courses. Some of the arts-based colleges should expand opportunities for school leavers. They should create opportunities for bridging courses into areas such as science, for qualified students. Kenyan universities should also create flexible opportunities for students who, for example did not pass mathematics in high school but would like to pursue a science degree. They should institute general education courses in mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics in first year of study so that those who pass can be admitted to degrees of their choice. It is unfortunate that many students qualify for few degree options in Kenya because of the JAB-instituted cluster system that makes no meaning to interest and ability of some students. Many Ugandan universities – both private and public – are flexible and that is why parents are taking their children across the border. Allowing for flexibility does not mean compromising standards; it only means increasing opportunities for students and reducing student flight to Uganda and South Africa.
Kenya has good private universities that can also help the government in creating more spaces for those who qualify for university education. The Catholic University in Eastern Africa (CUEA) has one of the greatest potential to expand in arts and social sciences because of its strategic location in Nairobi as well as its sub-urban and regional appeal. Daystar University has also an unlimited potential to expand in Athi River where land is relatively cheap and its distance from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi makes it an ideal place to study. Like Daystar, Nazarene University has also great potential for expansion and its location in Ongata Rongai makes it a sub-urban university and can cater for nonresidential students from Nairobi as well as residential students. The University of Eastern Africa at Baraton is the first private university in Kenya but has not expanded from where it was twenty years ago, when it had many students from Uganda and Tanzania. It has not taken advantage of its location in serene and evergreen environment to expand. It is true that student numbers went down when public universities started parallel programs, but it could still compete with parallel programs at public universities. Its nursing program can be turned into a medical degree program, to complement the University of Nairobi and Aga Khan University in Nairobi. Kabarak University and the United States International University (USIU) have potential for expansion, especially Kabarak, which has a lot of land for expansion. USIU has also not expanded significantly. Strathmore University needs to have a campus away from Nairobi, because its Madaraka Campus does not have enough room for expansion. Kenya Methodist University should focus more efforts on the Meru Campus to expand spaces because it has great potential for expansion there than the Nairobi campus. Unlike Uganda, where private universities are spread throughout the country, over 90 per cent of private universities in Kenya are in Nairobi and complete for the same students. Another factor is that many private universities in Kenya have not created strategic courses. Many of them do not offer degrees in law and business studies, and yet these are degrees that are popular with Kenyan students. The number of private universities in Kenya is higher than Uganda, but many of the private universities are theological schools – East Africa School of Theology, Reformed Institute for Theological Training, Nairobi International School of Theology, Kenya Highlands Bible College, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Scott Theological College, St. Paul’s University, etc. There are other smaller private universities in Kenya that can create a unique niche by providing bridging courses to marginal students who score C or C+ but would like to pursue professional courses at larger universities. They can also arrange with other universities so that they can have credit transfer system, so that they train foundational programs. Such small universities include Pioneer International University, Inoorero University, Gretsa University, KCA University, Keriri Women’s University of Science and Technology, Mt. Kenya University and Pan Africa Christian University. If they all expand, there will be no more deaths of Kenyan students in Uganda, for only few will cross over and will not be seen as invaders.
Prof. Maurice Amutabi teaches History and Africana and Black Studies at Central Washington University, Ellensburg, USA