NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – Facing overwhelming debt, one Christian university in Kenya has been ordered to shut its doors as students and professors at two others are wondering whether they could be next.
The nation’s acting education secretary directed the Presbyterian University of East Africa on Thursday (Jan. 25) to start dismantling, revealing for many in this East African country how financial mismanagement and poorly planned growth was undermining not only Presbyterian University, but two other Christian institutions of higher education in Kenya as well.
While Presbyterian University hopes to yet save itself, concern is also focused on the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and Kenya Methodist University. Both have a year to show a government commission that they have restructured and can ensure future financial stability.
The debt problems plaguing these universities have upset not only those enrolled and employed by them, but ordinary citizens in this predominantly Christian country who had hoped for better from the universities’ leaders.
“As a church institution, I thought it would adopt the best management practice,” said David Nene, a Presbyterian taxi driver who often shuttled people to the university that faces imminent closure.
But the Rev. Julius Mwamba, the moderator of Presbyterian Church of East Africa, which owns the university, said its challenges can be overcome.
“We are still open. We hope to remain open,” Mwamba told Religion News Service. “We are negotiating with Ministry of Education. … We are for dialogue.”
More than 1,000 students enrolled in the Presbyterian university’s degree programs in the last academic year, and another 350 signed up for its diploma and certificate programs. Many of those students — and staff members, some of whom have not been paid for two years — must live with uncertainty as Mwamba and other university leaders grapple with $6 million in debt and try to save the school.
Most higher education in Kenya — there are more than 60 universities, about half public and half private — is not church-run. Together, Kenyan universities educate 540,000 students annually in the country of 50 million. About 50,000 graduate each year.
Presbyterian University of East Africa, founded in 2007, is among several Christian universities in Kenya that have opened within the past few decades and enjoyed fast growth. Some of these Christian universities attracted students who did not get accepted at government-run universities, which charge lower tuitions but require higher grades for entry.
Even many within the Christian universities said they grew too fast, did not allocate money well — or both.
Catholic bishops admit all is not well at their institution, which was founded in 1992 and enrolls students from Kenya and elsewhere in Eastern Africa.
“There have been some hitches,” said Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We don’t think the funds were misappropriated, but directed to incorrect projects.”
Justus Mbae, vice chancellor of the Catholic university, said the institution was implementing a turnaround strategy that involves restructuring and making sure staff and other resources are all allocated wisely.
“This is ongoing,” said Mbae, the first vice chancellor of the university who is not a priest.
At the Methodist university, which opened in 1997, Vice Chancellor Maurice Okoth said the current financial challenges there resulted from past financial mistakes but that these problems have not hurt its mission.
“The quality of teaching and students’ welfare has never been an issue of concern at the university,” said Okoth in a statement.
Jesse Mugambi, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the public University of Nairobi, said the crackdown on religious universities is a good thing in the long run but the rules ensuring good financial practices must be followed.
“They are made to ensure the universities are sustainable in future,” said Mugambi. “It is good we have the standards now, so that we don’t cry in future over the state of our university education.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya.)