An International Centre of Excellence in Public Policy and Research

Frontiers of Open University Education in Kenya


An open university is an institution of higher learning where one can study anywhere without attending classes in a lecture hall. It was established using the Distance Learning policy framework. Distance learning is a form of open learning that operates on an Open, Distance and Electronic Learning (ODEL) framework. In comparison, other conventional universities in Kenya are where students learn physically in class. An open university, therefore, has an objective of making university education more accessible and affordable than conventional onsite universities.

In Kenya, open university is pegged on Article 43 and Article 53(1)(b) of the Constitution (2010), which gives every Kenyan the right to education by recognizing education as a fundamental right for every Kenyan. Section 24(1)(b) of the Universities Act 2012 and UNESCO commitments by Kenya under “an educational philosophy where learning can happen anywhere, anytime from any source, and therefore can also inform practice in face-to-face institutions” led to the formation of the Open University of Kenya (OUK). In addition, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on Quality Education aims to directly support open universities by making education more inclusive and accessible. In addition, the Kenya Vision 2030 aims to provide inclusive education, facilitate lifelong learning, align with workforce needs, and foster innovation.

Open University has the vision to contribute primarily to the democratization of higher education by offering flexible learning options that cater for a wide and dynamic population demographic, including working professionals, remote locations, persons with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged groups. The Open University of Kenya (OUK) aims to bridge educational disparities by leveraging distance learning technologies, and allowing students who might otherwise be excluded due to geographical, financial, or time constraints to pursue higher education. In addition, it offers support for lifelong learning and professional development, enhancing the skills of the workforce and contributing to national economic growth.

This blog focuses best practices, policy gaps, opportunities, and interventions regarding potential in open university to increase university educational attainment levels, foster inclusivity, and enhance social mobility within the country.

Status of Open University Education

Enrolment capacity potential

In 2022/23, of the total 862,782 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates, about 563,000 students missed out enrollment in universities, with only 173,127 gaining direct university entry, having attained the minimum university entry grade of C-Plus (C+) and above, thus leaving a huge number of Kenyan students out of university education. However, Kenyan universities require more capacity to handle the number of students seeking university education. The Open University of Kenya (OUK) could address this demand through technology, utilizing digital and online learning to increase access and capacity. This solution offers flexible, cost-effective education, easing the burden on physical facilities.

The open university concept might be new in Kenya but not unique in many parts of the world as it has been implemented in several African countries and worldwide. In Africa, open universities enroll between 25 per cent and 37 per cent of the total student enrollment population. Some of the leading open universities in Africa are The Open University of Tanzania with 41 per cent, the Open University of South Africa with 37 per cent, the Zimbabwe Open University with 33 per cent, and the National Open University of Nigeria with 26 per cent of the respective country’s student population at all universities. These universities provide vital access to academic and professional development opportunities for those constrained by geography or economic factors. By facilitating flexible distance learning, these institutions have broadened educational reach, enabling a substantial number of students to acquire education qualifications and skills that bolster career growth and drive socio-economic progress. Their impact is substantial in empowering people and shaping the continent’s educational landscape, ensuring that higher education is not a privilege but a widespread opportunity for growth and advancement.

On a global scale, open universities across the globe have been instrumental in increasing access to higher education, fostering equity, and promoting lifelong learning. Institutions such as the Open University of the United Kingdom and Canada’s Athabasca University offer flexible learning suitable for adults balancing work and family. Similarly, Spain’s UNED and Thailand’s Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University provide opportunities for continuous professional growth. The Open University of China and Korea’s National Open University extend these opportunities further, enhancing workforce skills and making education accessible to non-traditional students. Turkey’s Anadolu University and Indonesia’s Universitas Terbuka have democratized education.  Figure 1 shows the ratio of open university enrollment to total student population in Kenya compared to some of the top-world open universities.

Figure 1: Ratio of open university enrollment to total student population in the top world open universities (%)

Source: Report on Charter Consideration for OUK 

Cost of university programmes offered through the OUK

The cost per programme being offered at the conventional Kenyan universities compared to OUK are more expensive (Figure 2). For instance, OUK’s enrollment is consistently lower than those of other traditional onsite universities. OUK offers more affordable university programmes compared to the traditional universities listed. One of the objectives of OUK is to ensure that the cost of education is reduced, thus making it accessible to increase the number of students accessing university education. 

Figure 2: Programme costs compared to conventional universities in Kenya (Ksh per academic year)

 Source: KUCCPS Website 

Policy Gaps and Emerging Issues on OUK Frontiers

Technological progress

The African Virtual University (AVU) at Kenyatta University was established in 1996 and is funded by the World Bank as a pilot for distance education project that ended in 2000. It was designed as a technology-based distance education network focusing on science and engineering to bridge the digital divide in Africa. It integrated satellite and internet technologies for delivering content globally. The African Virtual University at Kenyatta University faced several key challenges, including financial constraints due to reduced government funding, rapid student enrollment growth without matching resources, and leading to overcrowding, and a decline in academic staff quality due to relaxed recruitment calling for the capacity to meet the high demand for education needed to be increased. There was a significant need for improved technological infrastructure to support virtual learning and ensure curricular relevance to the labour market, especially from science and engineering courses offered then. These issues highlight the difficulties of adapting to evolving educational models and technologies in Sub-Saharan African countries, Kenya included, especially with the Open University of Kenya.

Policy assessment needs

The Open University of Kenya (OUK) ought to be based on thorough needs assessment and associated policy reviews to align with current educational needs, ensuring societal, economic, and environmental responsiveness to its vision. Bridging policy gaps is vital for effective policy implementation, encouraging innovation, and ensuring safety. Data-driven decision-making is key to maintaining policy relevance in OUK operations. Engaging various university education stakeholders is crucial to creating inclusive and widely accepted educational policies globally. Emphasizing policies that foster innovation and technology integration is essential, as is incorporating sustainability into all aspects of the university policy. The OUK needs to ensure its policies are flexible to adapt to changing educational landscapes. Furthermore, investing in education and training is crucial for developing a workforce capable of adapting to and shaping responsive educational policies in a dynamically evolving educational sector, thus fulfilling OUK’s aims of providing accessible and affordable quality education, catering to diverse needs of students, including working professionals and those in remote areas, by leveraging technology and promoting lifelong university learning.

Technological advancements are reshaping policy development in university education, as seen in institutions such as the Open University of Kenya. These advancements enable innovative solutions for enhanced educational services and inclusive policies that mirror changing societal values.

Economic shifts, including the rise of new industries and evolving job markets, necessitate adaptive educational policies to foster economic resilience and support unique workforce needs. In addition, the growing emphasis on environmental sustainability calls for policies integrating ecological conservation into educational frameworks.

Disability mainstreaming

Education policies need to consider the needs of diverse target populations such as providing better support for students with disabilities (PWD) and new mothers by uploading classes for easy access past the normal learning hours. The Open University of Kenya ought to consider revising its policies to better align with current educational needs and trends of persons with disabilities, including provisions for braille and sign language in relevant courses. Innovation gaps need to be bridged to fully leverage technological advancements vital for economic and educational development. Strengthening resource mobilization, training of teaching and non-teaching staff, and improving Internet access are essential for a secure and accessible learning environment. In addition, the university needs to address data protection gaps to safeguard the rights of students, and lose information gaps by basing policies on comprehensive data, ensuring their effectiveness and relevance in modern university education.

Cyber security

The Open University of Kenya faces potential risks of cyber security in its digital learning model. Cybersecurity is a significant concern, requiring stringent measures to protect sensitive data and maintain the integrity of online assessments as all university operations will be online and not just classes was the case during the COVID-19 period when classes were online.

Infrastructure deficit

Some regions in Kenya lack robust ICT infrastructure and electricity, leading to slow Internet speeds and limited access to digital resources. The transition from traditional onsite learning to open learning can be challenging for both educators and students, necessitating effective communication about the benefits of online education and training opportunities. Most universities that use the ODEL have now reverted to onsite learning due to infrastructure challenges, as some of the students come from remote areas where they could not access Internet to enable online learning. Furthermore, with rapid technological advancements, OUK needs to consider adopting sustainable practices such as responsible disposal and recycling of electronic waste to minimize environmental impacts.

Furthermore, globalization’s interconnectedness highlights the need for policies promoting international cooperation in education, ensuring that OUK policies are responsive to local and global educational challenges and opportunities.

Conclusions and Recommendations 

The Open University of Kenya (OUK) aims to ensure that all Kenyans can access university education regardless of their geographical location or socio-economic status. It stands at a critical juncture where aligning its policies with contemporary educational needs is imperative for sustained growth and relevance to achieve the Kenya Vision 2030.

The Open University of Kenya (OUK) could undertake a comprehensive needs assessment, bridge policy gaps, implement data-driven decision-making, and engage university education stakeholders for inclusive global policies. There is need to emphasize on innovation, technology integration, support sustainability principles in content development and delivery, and ensure OUK’s leadership in university education. Flexibility in policies is crucial for adapting to evolving educational landscapes, while investing in education and training nurtures a workforce capable of shaping and adapting to responsive educational policies. These recommendations will not only strengthen OUK’s commitment to accessible and quality education, but position the institution as a leader in addressing the evolving needs of diverse student populations, thus providing a dynamic, relevant, and inclusive education, ensuring its continued success in the rapidly evolving educational landscape in Kenya. 

Authors: Joab Odhiambo – KIPPRA Young Professional

Winnie Momanyi- KIPPRA Young Professional

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