Until the 1990s Kenya had a selective state-financed university system where students bore few educational costs. This limited the number of university students that the government could afford to educate and created fierce competition for university places. In the late 1990s the Kenyan government responded to this crisis in supply by liberalizing the tertiary sector. Barriers to accreditation of private universities were loosened and public universities began to establish parallel, fee-paying programmes, which only required applicants to meet minimum entry requirements, alongside the state-sponsored, selective programmes. By the late 2000s self-financed students accounted for roughly half of university admissions. Consequently, undergraduate enrolment rose sharply, from 33,000 in 1999, to close to 500,000 by 2017. The number of universities increased from a single public university in Nairobi in 1970, to over 50 tertiary institutions nationwide by 2014.
Critics have worried that these privately funded university tracks have undermined equity in access to university education. Many have argued that these reforms enabled lower-performing students from richer families, who could pay full fees, to enter Kenya’s most competitive public universities. This may have increased the elite bias in student composition and heightened Kenya’s already considerable regional and ethnic skews in university access. Others have posited the opposite, that restrictive, even if ostensibly free, higher education is more easily captured by children of the existing elite. Therefore, an expansion in opportunities to pursue university education, even if self-financed, would enable a more diverse group of students to study at universities.
This paper brings new empirical evidence to these debates by analysing inequalities in university access in Kenya since the 1990s, drawing on two main sources. First, we use census data to examine trends in equity in the 1990s and early 2000s. Second, we use a new dataset of all University of Nairobi students to study educational equity at Kenya’s most prestigious university.
We find that horizontal inequalities in university access - between ethnic and religious groups and the sexes—have declined, while vertical, “class”, inequality is likely increasing. Using a subsample of University of Nairobi graduates, we argue that parallel degree programmes absorbed a higher share of women and ethnic minorities than through the regular competitive admission stream, but that these students were on average from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. In this sense, the programmes are regressive. However, this should not overshadow the fact that students entering through the regular, meritocratic track are on average from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds too. We also show that intergenerational persistence in university access in Kenya is considerable, and its high level predates the reforms of the 1990s.
About the paper authors
At the moment of their collaboration, Rebecca Simson was the David Richard Junior Research Fellow in Economic History at Wadham College, University of Oxford. Her research explores social and economic processes of change in postcolonial Africa, with a focus on education, intergenerational mobility, social stratification and elite formation since independence. J. Andrew Harris (PhD Harvard) was an assistant professor in the Division of Social Science at New York University Abu Dhabi. He studied institutions, bureaucracy, and political behaviour in Africa, with a focus on Kenya.