History Ph.D. Dissertations


From Colonial Elitism to Moi’s Populism: The Policies and Politics of University Education in Kenya, 1949-2002

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Apollos Nwauwa (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Lillian Ashcraft-Eason (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Douglas Forsyth (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Kefa Otiso


This study explores the evolution of policies on access to university education in Kenya between 1949 and 2002. The process of democratizing access during the period under study proceeded unevenly due to the changing economic and political dynamics that conversely affected the university policies. The first twenty years of university experience in East Africa, between 1949 and 1969, witnessed very modest gains in access to university. During this period, the colonial inter-territorial policy severely limited access to university. The inter-territorial university policy was initiated by the British as part of the colonial reform efforts aimed at creating a new kind of imperial partnership with the subject people in the post Second World War world. The implementation of the inter-territorial policy in East Africa led to the establishment of the University of East Africa with three university colleges of Makerere in Uganda, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika and Nairobi in Kenya. Britain insisted on the inter-territorial policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s even when it was apparent that it planned to grant independence to its East African colonies territorially. This study shows that the inter-territorial policy was a mechanism to ensure the continuation of British influence in East Africa in the post independence period.

The realities of independence, however, conflicted with the principles that underlay the inter-territorial policy. The increasing demand for more university opportunities by East Africans put pressure on their governments towards expansion of institutional facilities. Consequently, the East African governments responded by discontinuing the inter-territorial policy in 1969, allowing for the creation of national universities. The Kenyan government established the University of Nairobi and its constituent, Kenyatta University College in 1970. For the next two years, Kenya witnessed tremendous expansion of university enrollment. But beginning in 1973, the Kenyatta government suspended the expansion process on claims of scarcity of finances. Despite the prevailing high demand, the Kenyatta government retained the colonial elitist mentality that limited university access to only the cream of the Kenyan society. All this changed with the coming to power of President Moi in 1978. When Moi succeeded Kenyatta in 1978, the entire education system was reviewed and reformed. Policies that were intended to democratize access to university education were introduced. The reform strategy involved changing the education structure from the British model that promoted elitism and severely restricted access to the more egalitarian American model. By the time he left office in 2002, the number of universities and students enrolments had increased tremendously.

This study is not merely a history of the foundation of universities in East Africa or in Kenya. Rather, it utilizes historical research methods to investigate the reaction of the successive governments in Kenya to the protracted demands for university access. In doing so, it explores the connections between university access and lingering controversies on East African regional integration, quality and relevance, university autonomy, academic freedom, brain drain, university financing and funding, student activism, university diversification and privatization.