All children are able to attend school for free for eight years in Kenya. Afterwards, some scholarships are available to the best students. But children from wealthy families have a better shot at earning good grades.
Children and young people combined make up around half of Kenya's population, making for a young populace in which women have an average of four children. Many children drop out of the free, public elementary schools before reaching eighth grade because of unmet needs for school uniforms and shoes, books, pencils and notebooks. Many families cannot afford to provide their children with the necessities for school.
Public classrooms are overflowing, and one poorly paid teacher must often handle a class with 40 pupils or more. There may not be enough desks for all of the students, books and maps may be scarce, and many schools have dirt floors. Private schools, in contrast, are expensive but much better equipped. Teachers are paid better in these institutions, and the facilities are more complete.
A central state examination administered after the eighth grade determines who will continue on to a secondary school. Pupils from private schools typically earn much better grades and have better chances at advancing their education.
Public secondary schools cost around one euro ($1.31) daily for each student - a sum that is much too high for many Kenyans. A fifth of the populace must get by with less than one euro per day. Only a wealthy minority can afford the expensive private secondary schools, but graduating from a secondary school is a requirement for enrolling in college. Before a child enters ninth grade, it is decided whether he or she will be able to undertake university studies. If not, a child's education is considered complete after the eighth grade.
However, even those who go on to a secondary school have low chances of matriculating at a university. That is because earning a university degree brings significant costs, and only the students with the very best grades receive state support for their studies. In expensive, private high schools, the majority of students earn high marks, so it is often the already well-positioned who can count on state support when they begin their studies.
Wealthy parents, however, can still offer their children with somewhat lower grades a university education if they completely finance the tuition themselves. Annual tuition rates at Kenya's universities are roughly equal to what a local teacher earns in five months.
Hunger for education and growing universities
Despite the obstacles, many people in Kenya see education as immensely important. Parents may go into debt or sell land in order to pay for their children's schooling. One way in which universities and other educational institutions are serving the demand for degrees is by offering a number of short-term degree courses at varying levels of academic intensity. Unfortunately, the quality of those programs often doesn't meet international standards.
In the last five years, the number of students enrolled at public universities has doubled. In order to have enough qualified professors per student, Kenya would have to allow 1,000 doctoral students to finish their PhDs each year. But in recent years, Kenya has seen fewer than 230 students earn a doctorate, with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) providing financial support to 50 of those graduates.
The biggest problem is encouraging the next generation of academics: Most students are simply not prepared enough to write a dissertation.
In a country that is making great strides toward the future, the university system is facing obstacles due to its own growth.
Fewer opportunities for women
Young women face additional challenges when making their way through the school system. Families invest less money in girls' education, and although the grades required for university enrolment were lowered for female students, fewer young women than men go on to study after completing high school. Women currently make up just 40 percent of the students receiving state scholarships.
For years, more and more families have been financing their children's tuition themselves. This development plays to the children of the wealthy while leading to further disadvantages for girls. Many Kenyans share traditional views about the role of women in society, seeing them rather as suited solely for marriage, childbirth and raising a family.
When young women attend university, they often select the social sciences or humanities as majors - fields that bring little social prestige and income. Once there, young women will find few academic role models, as very few lecturers, professors, deans and rectors are women. That demotivates these young learners to continue on after their bachelor's degree and earn advanced credentials. As such, the status quo is reinforced.
But there are also students whose stories give courage to others. A young man from an underprivileged background in Nyeri had the best grades in his entire town after eighth grade. A very good secondary school in Nairobi offered him a scholarship covering tuition as well as room and board. Now he is studying economics and German with the state's support.
The most well-known female role model of academic success is Auma Obama, Barack Obama's sister. After earning excellent grades in school, she studied in Germany with a DAAD scholarship. She later earned a doctorate and now works for CARE International.
Author: Georg Verweyen / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen
Georg Verweyen is a lecturer with the German Academic Exchange Service (German: DAAD), and has lived with his family in Kenya for three years. He teaches German at Kenyatta University and advises students in the DAAD office.