February 5, 2016

Financing crisis pushes Kenyan University students to life in the slums

button print grnw20 Financing crisis pushes Kenyan University students to life in the slums

Rapid expansion and a deepening financing crisis at the Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) has pushed thousands of university students into a life of squalor and destitution that is now threatening to dilute the quality of graduates from the institutions of higher learning.

Even as Kenya proudly displays the large number of its citizens now getting university education – currently admitting more than 40,000 freshmen a year – intense economic pressure is driving students into life in the slums, starvation and criminal activity with little time to concentrate on studies.

In large cities like Nairobi with a large student population, authorities say financial hardship is driving students into criminal activity such as peddling and consumption of drugs and prostitution with devastating results on their academic performance.

In Nairobi, for instance, an acute shortage of accommodation in the universities has seen a mushrooming of semi-permanent structures in the city’s slums and chaotic Eastlands district for renting out to students as hostels.

The deepening financing crisis is underlined by the fact that more than one third of the freshmen who were to start their degree programmes in September have not formally reported because they have no money to pay the required fees.

The financial hardship is expected to continue till next month when Helb has promised to start disbursing loans to qualified students – most of who will have spent two months in squalor.

Most universities require students to pay admission fees and other charges to get formally registered for courses.

The fees, excluding accommodation charges paid for the limited bed space available in campuses, now stand at an average of Sh28,000, way above the reach of many parents whose children are seeking admission.

Over the past month, the Business Daily has visited and spoken to thousands of university students living in cramped, stuffy, poorly lit rooms in Nairobi’s low income neighbourhoods of Makongeni, Kaloleni, Mbotela and Land Mawe.

Land Mawe, an old, low-cadre railway workers’ estate on the edge of Nairobi’s CBD, is one of the assets that Kenya Railways transferred to its Staff Retirement Benefits Scheme as part of the settlement of a Sh10 billion debt it owed the workers’ pension fund.

Members of the retirement scheme, who now own the property, appear to have become entrepreneurial and built small, semi-permanent structures where they accommodate students at a fee.

“The situation here is dire as you can see. University students, in fact nobody, should be living in these conditions,” said Alfred Kemboi, a former resident of the area who completed his studies in April and is now on attachment with a small bank.

Over at Kenyatta University, students who did not secure rooms on campus have sought accommodation in the crowded Kahawa Sukari, Roysambu and Kahawa Wendani estates.

Kilometer 101 or simply KM, an informal, crime-infested neighbourhood located outside the university’s main campus however remains the preferred settlement area for destitute students.

The informal settlements are mostly occupied by continuing students because the university gives freshmen priority for on-campus hostels.

“We found ourselves here when First Year students reported, taking most of the hostels in campus,” said one of the students even as he pointed to the irony of the name that their landlord chose for their humble abode, Siku Njema –Kiswahili for good day.

The long row of iron sheet structure is divided into single rooms just enough to accommodate two beds and a cooking place. The occupants share communal toilets and washrooms located outside.

This level of squalor would be a shocker to thousands of graduates (now parents), who passed through the institutions of higher learning two decades ago when the universities accommodated all students on campus, fed and gave them living allowances.

The accommodation crisis is underlined by the fact that Kenya has in the past five years rapidly converted tens of its middle-level colleges with skeletal infrastructure into universities.

Three-year-old Technical University of Kenya (formerly Kenya Polytechnic), for instance, has just two hostels for males in Nairobi’s South B and another for women at Community totalling less than 1,000 rooms and where students pay Sh7,200 per semester against a student population of 13,600.

“The University College does not guarantee accommodation to students. Many of our students find accommodation with the help of the Dean’s office,” says a notice on the university’s website.

George Magoha, the vice chancellor of the University of Nairobi, admitted that universities are facing an accommodation crisis even as he reported that about 70 per cent of UoN students live on campus.

Prof Magoha admitted that the condition of some of UoN’s hostels is the reason the students are charged very low fees for the rooms.

“This is not an excuse for the conditions of some of the hostels but we are really trying to maintain them without pricing them out of the reach of most students,” he said.

Prof Magogha described running communal hostels as a big enterprise that pays Sh28 million in electricity bills and Sh8 million in water bills every month.

UoN is planning to construct a Sh3 billion hostel along Harry Thuku Road to house between 2,000 and 3,000 students who will pay between Sh50-100 per day.

Kenyatta University is to build a Sh1 billion housing complex at its main campus through that will house about 6,000 students.

But as these institutions lay out plans to ease the housing nightmare, continuing students continue to suffer. The main reason for this is a government double intake policy which was adopted in 2011 in order to delink admissions from bed space.