THE PATHWAY TO UNIVERSITY STUDIES ABROAD
About 64,000 students missed out on admissions to the public universities this year despite meeting the minimum C+ grade. Indeed Kenya’s seven public universities can barely absorb a tenth of the more than 350,000 high school graduates annually. Although many private institutions have sprung up in the last decade, their capacity is limited – generally less than 2,000 students each – and they focus heavily on commercial subjects.
That still leaves thousands of form four leavers with no place to go and weak results to boot, since less than 30 per cent of candidates nationwide achieve a C+. Some students opt to resit KCSE, others enrol at the nearest college for various courses. But truth be told, in a society that values degrees above college diplomas and certificates, the demand for university programmes far outstrips the supply. The only other alternative is to look beyond the borders and across the seas to foreign universities.
Studying abroad is, for many students and their parents, a mind-boggling endeavour of countless unknowns and high costs, best left for brilliant students or wealthy families. Yet pursuing overseas degrees is not as impossible or financially prohibitive as many imagine. The key to successful foreign-school enrolment is in the preparation.
To begin with, one needs a strong understanding of the academic requirements of their career choice. For studies in law or medicine, foreign universities prefer ‘A’ levels or at least 5 very strong ‘O’ levels. Degrees in engineering or architecture generally require mathematics and physics. So by third form, you must already be studying the appropriate subjects.
Everybody wants an American, British or Canadian degree. Granted, the USA and Canada are generally more flexible about accepting KCSE because you can enrol at a college and then upgrade to a university after a year or two. But these three countries are also the pricier options.
But why limit yourself when there’s a whole world of academic alternatives available, equally as excellent and often times more affordable? “Hungary is well known for its medical schools, China for degrees in engineering, IT and medicine, and India for studies in post-graduate dentistry,” says Pari Lalani, Director of Unilink, a university services agent with offices throughout East Africa. “Also, these institutions teach in English so you need not spend a year taking foreign language classes.”
Furthermore, numerous American and European universities have set up campuses in the middle-East and Asia, offering accredited courses for lower fees. Non-European universities have also become business savvy to attract foreign students. “You can start a medical degree in Malaysia or Hungary and then transfer to the UK in the third or fourth year,” explains Lalani.“You graduate with a British degree and you save money during the first couple of years as fees in Malaysia and Hungary are much lower.”
Regarding scholarships, there is a common misconception that undergraduate studies and international students are not eligible for scholarships. On the contrary, many institutions, in an effort to diversity their student demographics, offer scholarships for women, applicants from non-Western countries or studies in specialised courses. Furthermore, numerous international corporations, some based in Kenya, set aside educational bursaries for needy students as part of their corporate social investment programmes.
That said, if you’re still determined to enter the Ivy League schools of America or their counterparts in Great Britain, be prepared for stringent application requirements. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton and other prestigious universities typically don’t accept anything but straight ‘A’s – nor do they need to. They only deal with direct applications (no agents please!) and may require a telephone interview or in-person campus visit. On a positive note, if you’re a triple A student with no money, you could qualify for a full scholarship to an Ivy League institution based purely on academic merit.
Speaking of grades, more than 70 per cent of KCSE candidate achieve below C+ each year. One way or the another, students must resolve this deficit if they intend to pursue higher education. In this regard, foundational or ‘pathway programmes’ are particularly beneficial. They bridge the grade gap thus availing an assortment of university options to students who would otherwise be locked out.
Several Australian universities offer pathway programmes locally after which you proceed abroad in a year or two. Likewise, some American institutions offer pre-university programmes on campus to students with marginal high school grades that facilitate the progress into the degree courses.
It is no secret that numerous school leavers are not sure of what career path to take. They’ve not had the benefit of comprehensive career counselling, and simply slogged through their studies and exams without any consideration to the ultimate goal. Lalani explains: “Many come to us not knowing what to do. Our counsellors talk with them in depth, present them with suitable career options and the appropriate courses to take.”
Choosing non-specific courses is one recommendation. It gets students into university, keeps young minds engaged, allows them to mature and exposes them to career possibilities. Social studies, business management and psychology are particularly useful academics for a wide range of careers. Combining arts with mainstay programmes is not unwise either. After all, corporations these days are looking for creative thinkers and innovative minds in addition to academic credentials.
Whilst Kenyan schools concentrate heavily on academics, increasingly, the extra-curricular experience is becoming key ingredient for successful university enrolment. Universities nowadays commonly ask students to write a personal statement as part of their application.“Take part in sports, music or drama. Do volunteer work or become a school prefect, then put this in your application,” advises Lalani. “Universities are looking for people who show self-initiative, have leadership qualities and well-rounded personalities.” And when you’re competing with hundreds of global candidates, non-academic achievements can give your application an incredible boost, especially if your grades are average or below.
Clichéd as it sounds, you must do your homework thoroughly when it comes to foreign university search. The single most important criterion is course accreditation; in other words, are the courses offered of a quality that is accepted worldwide? No point in spending millions for a degree that is only as valuable as the paper it’s printed on.
Begin searching well in advance. The time from application until you board an airplane can take up to nine months. Most universities have two or three intakes a year, but certain courses may have only one annual intake. University research can be a daunting undertaking, so consider engaging a university agent. In addition to linking you with dozens of overseas institutions, many agencies offer value-added services including accreditation checks, flight bookings, foreign culture briefings, visa guidance and career counselling.
Select agents provide the services for free but most charge $100 (Sh9,800). This might sound costly but considering the myriad of procedures and paperwork to be coordinated, the fee is probably good value for money. Once the acceptance letter comes in the mail, the next step isn’t a simple ‘pick and pay’ procedure like a trip to the supermarket. There’s a whole shelf-full of non-academic issues that must be sorted out, anyone of which could foil your dreams of sitting in a lecture hall. Campus accommodation must be secured, which all too often is inadequate and fills up faster than a matatu at rush hour. Some universities will arrange housing for new arrivals. Others might send you a directory of residential listings and expect you to fend for yourself.
Do you have enough funds for your living expenses such as transport, off-campus accommodation, personal purchases, etc? Some countries don’t permit foreign students to work. The USA, Australia and Canada generally allow foreigners on student visas to work but on a restricted basis. Select programmes may include paid internships or practicum as part of the course curricula. Either way, the salary might not be sufficient to cover your living expenses.
Student visas must be applied for. If you’ve never travelled abroad, step number one is to get a passport. Thankfully, there are now several immigration offices around the country, saving many people a trip to Nairobi. Student visa applications are often done face to face and applicants must bring along all manner of paperwork; school certificates, university documents, personal bank statements dating back six months, birth certificate, passport photos and non-refundable fees. Woe unto you if something is missing – no amount of explanations will appease the visa officials.
Medical reports are required, which means doctors’ appointments and laboratory visits. Airline flights must be booked. A word of caution: pay for the ticket after obtaining the visa. Enrolling for studies abroad is a huge undertaking but not an impossible one. In fact, Kenya now has the highest number of African students in the United States. This proves that armed with the right information, thorough preparation and a dose of dogged determination, you can realise your dreams anywhere in the world.
THE PATHWAY TO UNIVERSITY STUDIES ABROAD