- With the decrease in enrolment for self-sponsored academic programmes from last year, the commercial bubble seems to have burst.
- The number of top grades and university qualifiers drastically fell with reforms by the Ministry and efforts to stop rampant cheating in KCSE exams.
The past 15 years have seen the number of institutions of higher learning rise exponentially, partly to address rising demand for university education.
The distribution of the new institutions was also aided by local interests, as politicians jostled to have “our own university” in their backyards.
Middle-level colleges were earmarked for upgrading and lobbying by politicians followed to convert them to universities.
The universities and colleges, as expected, attracted investors keen to make an extra coin as they provided vital services to the surging student and staff populations.
However, the number of top grades and university qualifiers drastically fell with reforms by the Education Ministry and efforts to stop rampant cheating in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations.
The universities started receiving fewer numbers of learners too. It meant the fortunes of the investors also fell with the number of students.
Most of the new universities are struggling to stay afloat. At Taita Taveta University, for example, undergraduate enrolment has dropped to 650 students from 1,000 in the previous two academic years.
The institution was opened in 2007 as a campus of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and later made a constituent college.
In 2016, it received a charter to become a fully fledged university, with its student population hitting 3,600.
But things have not been rosy. Admission has dropped significantly in the past two academic years.
“We get enough funds from the government for recurrent and capital expenditure. The university, however, has to generate income through fees and levies for other expenditure,” Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Research and Outreach Christine Onyango told the Sunday Nation.
Despite the falling student numbers, real-estate investors are scrambling for land in Mariwenyi, where university is located.
They are putting up hostels for students and residential houses for workers. Ms Joyce Mwatee, a Mariwenyi resident, said the high number of students has created demand for accommodation.
Some learners even seek accommodation in Voi, a town more than 15 kilometres away.
The trading centre also has cyber cafes and several eateries. “The trading centre is growing. Businesses rushed here to cash in on the new opportunities,” Ms Mwatee said.
CHANGE OF TACK
The students are also regular customers of greengrocers. “Business opportunities opened up when the university was established. This place will become a small town if the student population grows,” said Mr Emmanuel, another local.
Elsewhere, in the resort town of Kilifi, when Pwani University was granted a charter in 2013, the price of land there skyrocketed as investors flocked in.
The former constituent college of Kenyatta University, with a population of more than 7,800 students, is strategically located on the Mombasa-Malindi road.
Hostels, retail shops, salons, clubs, cyber cafes, pharmacies and mini markets are among the notable establishments that sprouted in the area.
But the area is now a shell of its former self, with locals who had turned their houses into hostels reverting to rentals in order to attract better-paying tenants.
“The university is the backbone of the Kilifi Town economy. Many families depend on it. They include boda-bodas, greengrocers, mobile money stalls, shops, butcheries, salons, clinics and retail shops,” said Mr James Mwavita, an M-Pesa agent who shifted base from Malindi to a shop outside the university.
“I used to make a lot of money between 2014 and 2017. Things are tough these days. I make huge losses when students are on holiday,” he said.
Mr Hamisi Salim, a landlord, told the Sunday Nation that there are more than 30 hostels outside Pwani University but the owners have turned the buildings into shops and rental rooms.
“Some 24 students in my hostel used to pay Sh3,000 per bed. I made Sh72,000 a month, but I converted my house into a rental unit. I don’t want to incur losses when the students are on a long recess,” Mr Salim said.
Cyber cafe attendant Erick Mzee said he used to make Sh60,000 a month but his income has dropped by half. “Business is bad generally, but it is worse when the university closes,” he said.
Pwani University administrators could not comment on the student population as Vice-Chancellor Mohamed Rajab was unavailable.
But a source said the student numbers have increased marginally in the recent past. “The growth is still worrying. We got the charter at almost the same time as Kisii and Maasai Mara universities,” the source said.
“Maasai University has more than 12,000 students and a 2,700-bed capacity, while ours is only 800. More than three quarters of the students live outside the university, meaning their security is compromised.”
When students go for long holidays - from May to September - the Pwani University neighbourhood is deserted. “This has ripple effects on businesses around here,” a trader said.
Shrinking student numbers have also hurt businesses and the community around Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.
Enrolment has dropped by almost half, said Vice-Chancellor Stephen Agong.
“We used to admit more than 2,000 students, but we are now doing slightly above 1,000. The huge student population was a very good source of revenue even for locals,” Prof Agong told the Sunday Nation.
He, however, exuded confidence that enrolment at the university that was founded in 2009 and attained university status in 2013 would pick up soon.
“We used to get orders for meals whenever the university held an event. Lecturers and other staff would come for lunch and supper when attending scheduled talks, but the number keeps shrinking,” said Ms Millicent Atieno Otiwu, the owner of Christian Centre 84 Hotel in Bondo.
Mr Fred Otieno Oduor, another businessman, said there was a sudden surge in sales at his Ratuoro bookstore when the university was established. The situation has changed.
“We even began selling college books and learning materials. I would restock frequently,” Mr Oduor said.
He added that he bought a quarter-acre plot next to the university valued at Sh1.1 million to build a hostel.
“I had even bought building materials. One of my neighbours intended to put up a hostel but changed the plan to a residential house,” he said
Another hostel on the Bondo-Ndori road, near Opoda farm, stands abandoned due lack of students.
The 61-capacity hostel was built by the Visionary Franciscan Sisters of St Anna a year ago.
A nun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the idea was mooted two years earlier, with the target being female students.
“We were moved by the suffering of girls. Many risked their lives renting rooms in areas that were not safe,” she said.
She added that her group is now stuck with the multimillion-shilling investment, with few options.
“We are thinking of converting the hostel to a hotel but the process is complex and time-consuming,” she said.
Another headache for the nuns is that the rooms were designed to be used as hostels. Converting the building to a hotel will mean undertaking costly renovations.
Ms Mbinya Kanzi, a third-year student of special-needs education, specialising in hearing impairment, sells second-hand shoes to fellow learners at the university.
“When business was good, I would make two trips to Kongowea market, Mombasa, for restocking every semester. I now rely on relatives to send the stocks and local suppliers but that is expensive,” she said.
Prof Agong said Jaramogi Oginga University continues to engage in other activities that benefit the community.
“The university is meant for social good. Apart from the students, we also deal with research, outreach and other programmes as we implement our strategic plans,” the VC said.
“Through our insect-for-food innovation, free annual medical camps and holding open days, we strive to ensure the relationship with the community is good.”
The Siaya-based university is celebrated for establishing the Africa Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Use of Insects as Food and Feeds (Insefoods) with funding from the World Bank.
“The overall objective of Insefoods is to achieve long-term nutritional security by using insects as a cost-effective, reliable and sustainable source of protein and other nutrients,” Prof Agong said.
Before the government converted Meru College of Technology into a university in 2008, Nchiru was a nondescript dusty rural market.