The University of Nairobi (UoN) took the biggest hit in student enrolment in the current financial year at a time when the total female population across institutions of higher learning soared to a five-year high.
The official data from The Economic Survey 2023 shows that students enrolled at UoN for undergraduate and postgraduate courses shrank 24 percent to 36,251 from 47,693 in the 2021/22 year.
The second biggest drop was reported by Moi University whose numbers plunged 22 percent to 20,919 in the period.
Kenyatta University had its enrolment cut by 3 percent to 67,905 students amid increasing competition from private and new public universities.
The drop in enrollment at the top public universities came in a period even as the steadily rising number of female students failed to outdo the drop from male colleagues.
Enrollment of female students for undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the institutions grew six percent to 186,712 in the current financial year, while the number of male students dropped three percent to 263,926.
This is the highest number of female students in five years, a period when admission of male students has been steadily declining.
Male students enrolled for undergraduate and postgraduate courses at public universities hit a five-year high of 275,614 in the financial year to June 2021 but has since been declining.
UoN hiked tuition fees two years ago while the emergence of other public universities has upped the pressure on the UoN and other top institutions including Moi and Kenyatta University.
The drop in student enrollment looks set to hurt efforts by the top public universities to raise more cash and stem financial woes that have worsened in recent years.
“The number of public universities increased to 35 following the awarding of charters to Kaimosi Friends University, Tom Mboya and Tharaka-Nithi University,” the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics said in the survey.
The UoN hiked fees for self-sponsored first-year undergraduate, government-sponsored students and postgraduate students who joined in September 2021.
Fees for the undergraduate government-sponsored medical jumped to Sh59,000, up from Sh26,500, while that for self-sponsored students rose to Sh640,000 from Sh445,000.
An increase in the number of public universities, most of which are located outside the three major cities, has also offered students convenient spaces, further dimming prospects of the top institutions that had for years been taking the highest numbers of undergraduates and postgraduates.
But student numbers at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology rose nine percent in the period to hit 34,520 in the current financial year followed by Maseno University with a five percent jump to 23,912 students.
The two alongside Egerton University are the only pioneer public universities that reaped from the marginal increase in enrollment at public varsities.
Cash-strapped varsities have been promoting PhD and Master’s courses in a bid to grow their revenues in the wake of the sharp drop in the number of students pursuing parallel degree courses.
Public universities have been grappling with cash-flow woes that have become dire in recent years at the back of falling enrollment.
The institutions are struggling to honour obligations such as payroll taxes, retirement benefits and insurance premiums for staff with the debts hitting Sh62 billion at the end of the last financial year.
Inadequate State funding and the scrapping of parallel programmes have seen public universities struggle to honour obligations for employees.
Self-sponsored students had for years been a significant revenue stream for the public universities and a drop in the numbers led to a freeze in new hiring and a slowdown in expansion plans amid mounting debt.
The State last week announced a new funding formula where State capitation will be apportioned to an individual student according to the level of need.
The formula categorises students into three levels— vulnerable, less vulnerable and able and is meant to ease the funding hitches from the State.