Where Kenya is spending money on education – and what’s missing

Pupils sit the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination at a slum school in Nairobi. EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu

There’s conclusive evidence that education improves societal well-being. For this reason societies invest heavily in inclusive and quality education. Households play their part by funding their children’s education and citizens pay the taxes that support the public education system.

Kenya’s budgetary allocation to education in the current financial year stands at 494.8 billion shillings (about US$4.95 billion). This is twice the combined allocations for defence, health and the presidency. Put simply, the education budget is about 5.3% of 2018 GDP.

Overall, Kenya has over 17 million children and youth in education and training. Of these, 13 million attend the country’s private and public primary and secondary schools. Enrolment in public universities in 2018 was about 513,000. The rest are in early childhood education and non-university tertiary institutions.

The education budget growth goes to three main beneficiaries. The first is the Teachers’ Service Commission, which hires and manages teaching staff at primary and secondary schools as well as tertiary colleges. The commission receives over 50% of the education budget, over 85% of which goes to pay salaries for 310,000 teachers and trainers.

The immediate question that comes to mind is: why are the resources weighted so heavily to teacher productivity while the allocation for support services, especially quality assurance and standards, has remained at the same level for three years?

Public universities

The second institutional beneficiary is public universities, which get 20.9% of the education budget. The university allocation covers both staff costs and direct programme costs.

The university sub-sector has two major programmes – university education and research and development (R&D). While university education remains the second major spender within the sector, the allocation to research remains low.

That said, it is commendable that the R&D budget has been increasing over the years, funding close to 500 projects. This signifies a commitment to rejuvenate this programme. This is promising news for faculty, the research community and the small and medium enterprise sector.

For years, Kenyan universities made huge profits thanks to a flawed exam system which generated thousands more university-entry scores than government sponsorship could afford. These extra students enrolled into self-sponsored courses which generated millions in fees. During the days of the so-called “parallel programme” cash boom, universities hired many staff on a permanent basis.

But with fewer students meeting the minimum entry qualifications under a more stringent exam management system introduced in 2016, many universities are cash strapped and looking for a financing strategy to keep their core mission on course. Retrenchment, early retirement, encouraging unpaid leave, and providing outsourcing services remain open options for public universities.

Universities have also sought to increase fees to meet their needs and if this happens, many students from poor backgrounds with little access to bursaries will be affected.

School and youth training

The third important expenditure item is public primary and secondary schools under the basic education programme. The non-salary allocation to the basic education programme is 21.7% of the education budget. This includes funding for the country’s free primary schooling at 1,420 shillings ($14.20) per student and free secondary school education programme at 22,244 shillings ($222.40) per student.

The free secondary education allocation remains stable at about 15%-16%, up from 10% two years ago. The high transition from primary to secondary experienced in 2019 and again expected in 2020 perhaps justifies this spending. However, public school managers feel this is a drop in the ocean. At least 1,155 new classrooms, up from 1,041 in the previous financial year, are planned, along with an additional 250 laboratories.

Because of high construction costs, there is an opportunity here for innovative ways to build less expensive, long-lasting, child-friendly classrooms. Another option to ease the pressure of the 100% transition is to give allocations to students to join private schools. However, such private schools and private providers should adhere to certain principles,such as the rights to equality and nondiscrimination.

Finally, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) gets a very small proportion (below 5%) of the education budget. Yet this is a critical sub-sector because unemployment among youth aged 15-24 years stands at 22.2%. TVET’s focus on acquisition of skills sought after in the job market provides an opportunity to tackle challenges such as skills mismatch that hinder a smooth transition from school to work.

TVET provides opportunities for skill development that could ultimately lead to employment. Though the proportion of the budget allocated is low, the budgetary allocation has more than doubled in the past two financial years. At this rate, TVET will overtake the university budget in the next five to 10 years, a deliberate and perhaps well informed policy.

What matters

It is interesting to see how programme budget allocation per student has been changing over time and within programmes. It provides an indication of where policy changes are likely to take place. For instance, TVET and secondary education show a decline in student programme budget allocation. These two areas are priorities for government and have attracted high enrolments. Hence declining per capita student allocations while the absolute allocation has gone up.

Overall, Kenya’s emerging emphasis on secondary education and TVET training through enhanced spending is a good way to go. But a long-term funding sustainability strategy is needed to ensure the country makes strong strides on the proportion of the population with tertiary education – now below 10%. To be an industry-driven middle income country, which Kenya aspires to be by 2030, the proportion of the population with tertiary education should be in the neighbourhood of 50%.

Unfortunately, the quality assurance and standards related activities seem to be dropping off the radar. This does not bode well for the quality of education and training, much as there may be other available mechanisms to support such activities.