HIGHER EDUCATION IN KENYA IS OVERRATED
As a society, we have been conditioned that a university education equals success and that failure to attain it leads to a disastrous life. Consequently, we have deified degrees. And to meet the high premium we have placed on them, parents have sold their morals to acquire purloined exams, while others have sold their productive assets to the point of becoming destitute in order to pay university fees. Others have enriched forgers who falsify academic certificates that have become the irreducible minimum prerequisites for formal employment.
This deification of higher education in Kenya has resulted to credential inflation, where professions that once required certification, such as secretarial, marketing, etc, nowadays require degree certificates as the minimum qualification. Inevitably higher education institutions have been reduced to degree mills, instead of conducting sound research that can address the economic needs of Kenya.
As carefully observed, one might ask why the obsession with degrees. This stems from the Kenyan notion that only those with higher education can achieve social mobility in terms of status, wealth and power. Whereas this myth has been debunked the obsession runs deep. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland have provided an alternative through the dual system of apprenticeship where actual skills are learned by being trained on the job, with more emphasis being on how you acquire skills as opposed to being drilled in theoretical knowledge where its application is too little.
The origins of university education in Kenya can be traced back to 1947, when the colonial government came up with a plan seeking to establish a technical and commercial institute in Nairobi (Bailey, Cloete and Pillay 2013). In 1949, the plan mutated to encompass the East African region with the aim of providing higher technical education for the three territories of East Africa, namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. However, it was not until 1951 that this concept received a Royal Charter, under the name of the Royal Technical College of East Africa. The College was initially designed to provide instruction in courses leading to the Higher National Certificate offered in Britain and to prepare students for university degrees in engineering, and commercial courses. (Mwiria & Nyukuri 1994). It opened its doors to the first intake of students (A-level graduates for technical courses) in April 1956(Bailey, Cloete and Pillay 2013; Olel 2006), to become the first Kenyan higher educational institution. A working party established in July 1958 recommended, among other things, that through a process of reconstruction and addition of appropriate facilities, the College be transformed into the second Inter- Territorial University College in East Africa, a recommendation that the East African governments accepted.
In June 1961, the Royal Technical College was transformed into the second university college of East Africa, renamed the Royal College of Nairobi (Bailey et al. 2013). Following Kenya’s attainment of independence in 1963, the Royal College was elevated to the University College of Nairobi on 20 May 1964, following the establishment of the University of East Africa with Makerere, Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi as constituent colleges. This constituted the first step towards the introduction and development of university education in Kenya (Mutula 2002).The University College prepared students in the faculties of Arts, Science and Engineering (Bailey et al. 2013). Later, in 1970, the University of East Africa was dissolved and the University College of Nairobi was transformed into the University of Nairobi by an Act of Parliament, the University of Nairobi Act 1970 (Mutula 2002)
After attaining political independence in 1963, the Kenya government produced a blueprint to guide development in the country titled, ‘African Socialism and Its Application to Planning in Kenya’. The document recognized education and training of skilled manpower as one of the pillars of the development process. It emphasized that economic growth required ample supplies of skilled, trained and experienced manpower.
As such, it was concluded that the provision of education and training to all Kenyans was fundamental to the success of the government’s overall development strategy (Republic of Kenya 1965). Concerning higher education, the 1963 policy document saw its (higher education’s) long-term objective to be the enhancement of ability of Kenyans to preserve and utilize the environment for productive gain and sustainable livelihoods. In this regard, quality human resources were considered essential for the attainment of national development goals and for industrial development (Republic of Kenya 1965). Buoyed by such convictions, the Kenya government enthusiastically came up with programmes to assist Kenyans to access education in general and higher education in particular. The consequence has been the rapid growth in education in Kenya that has occurred at all levels, including the university level.
In Kenya, like elsewhere in the world, growth in public sector universities has been complemented by that in private universities. Kenya’s private higher education though has a longer history, compared to most of Africa. In particular, limited government funding for university education meant restricted supply of university education against a rising demand for the same, a gap that required the entry of other non-governmental players to fill (UNESCO 2005a). In lieu of this, private universities emerged as a viable option of acquiring higher education in Kenya (Mutula 2002) and have continued to flourish and coexist with public universities in the country. Despite growth in private university education, it was not until the 1990s that private university education took off in Kenya. While for a long time the Kenyan government did not give accreditation to private colleges and universities, in the 90s, with increased demand for university education, the government began to encourage the establishment and accreditation of private universities (Onsongo 2007)
Private providers took advantage of the slow pace of expansion of the public higher education sector to venture into the university education market, today, the sector boasts about 20 per cent of all students currently enrolled in Kenya’s universities.
To sum up, since independence Kenya has experienced phenomenal growth in university education with the public and private sectors growing side by side and complementing each other in the drive to make higher education more accessible in the country.
In Kenya the approach on higher education has not achieved the visions set out in law or policy. For Kenya to be an industrialized country as set out in Vision 2030 the obsession with degrees needs to be debunked. This chapter will attempt to give clear justifications as to why higher level education in Kenya is overrated. The study will highlight the political economy of higher education, in terms of governance structures and give evidence of how political interference in universities, especially public, inevitably negates the principles of autonomy and academic freedom. Massification of degree programmes and at times certain topics/subjects being offered wholly as degree programmes will highlight how the obsession with higher education has inevitably resulted to it being overrated. Issues to do with inadequate infrastructure and incompetent/unqualified faculty will also be addressed.
Governance in higher education is said to involve the authority to make decisions about fundamental policies and practices in several critical areas concerning colleges and universities: their number and location, their mission, their enrolment size, the access of students to their instructional programmes and the access of citizens to other services, degree requirements, the quality standards expected in student performance, the quality of research and public service activities, the freedom available to individual faculty members in their instructional and research activities, the appointment of staff, internal organizational structure and the allocation of resources.
A more recent trend that has affected universities and attitudes towards their autonomous aspirations has been the pressure on educational budgets occasioned by the fact that Kenya’s economy has not grown rapidly as was anticipated. As the economic conditions deteriorate, the government has become less benevolent towards universities than in the earlier era. The up hazard expansion of student numbers in the country in the past decade or so has been achieved without a proportionate rise in resources available to higher education. Because of the decline in per capita funds, universities have been forced to curtail expenditures which they would have liked to deploy in areas such as staff development, books, postgraduate training and equipment.
Financial austerity creates a climate of dependence which is not hospitable to the pursuit of institutional autonomy or individual freedoms. It should also be noted that universities’ autonomy and academic freedom very much depend on the prevailing political system, since democracy by its nature guarantees autonomy while authoritarian form of political organization denies the concepts of autonomy and academic freedom. In an authoritarian system, the activities of the state are normally centralized and the university is treated as an appendage of the government.
Since the African continent has been characterized by authoritarian regimes for a long time, they have not nurtured a political atmosphere for the autonomy and academic freedom in universities According to the stipulations of the various African universities acts, these universities are supposed to be autonomous of government control. The establishment of new institutions of higher learning is expected to follow laid down government procedures through specific legislation. Although many universities have enjoyed some degree of autonomy with regard to student admissions and academic staff recruitment, as well as in the determination of their teachings and research agenda, government involvement in the running of universities has been a common feature of government-university relations.
At the outset government’s involvement in universities begins with their establishment. There has been a persistent trend towards the proliferation of universities to satisfy group and community interests without any regard to availability of adequate facilities and resources. The establishment of universities in Kenya has by and large been government or individual Presidential initiative/directive. In the eyes of many government mandarins, the university acquires the same status as an industry which is used as a largess to reward political patrons and loyalists. In effect scientific rationale and feasibility studies which determine cost effectiveness are disregarded. Such universities have remained riddled with mismanagement and lack of vision. The political system exploits demand for higher education as a means of squaring issues relating to historical and regional inequality and the devaluation of the assumed elitist ethos of the formal education system.
Among the important politically motivated factors that have resulted due to large numbers of student admission in public universities is the relatively high frequency of student unrest which in most cases is accompanied by government closures of institutions. The politicization of decision-making has further reduced the effectiveness of the Commission for University Education which is set with full statutory powers to plan, develop and maintain the quality of university education. The overall consequences of politicized university governance has been unplanned growth of university education without commensurate rise in the level of funding leading to a sharp decline in quality of higher education.
2.2 Inadequate Teaching and Learning Facilities
Most universities in Kenya lack the physical facilities required for effective teaching and learning (Mwebi and Simwata 2013). The rising enrolments in the midst of declining government funding and the consequent crisis occasioned by it have left public universities without decent teaching and/ or learning facilities (Okioga, et al. 2012). The institutions are experiencing acute shortages of facilities that are essential for the existence of a suitable learning environment (Okwakol 2008). In some instances, universities have experienced a general decay and a near collapse of the infrastructure that existed during the 1970s and 1980s when universities enjoyed significant budgets from government.
The acute shortage of facilities in many public universities manifests itself in many forms. First, some universities, especially public, experience shortage of lecture hall space due to lack of funds to facilitate the necessary ongoing development and maintenance of such facilities. Institutions are littered with deteriorating and crumbling buildings (Kauffeldt 2009).
Secondly, public universities are also characterized by the lack of spacious libraries that are adequately equipped with current reading materials (Ibid 2009). Despite serving large numbers of students, such libraries tend to have outdated collections and restricted internet connectivity as a result of funding cuts. This means that students and faculty often work without access to essential components of university work, such as current textbooks and academic journals.
A third manifestation of inadequate facilities in public universities is the lack of basic computer laboratories that are well maintained and have adequate supplies, tools and equipment (Nyangau 2014 ).This restricts students’ access to communication technology, denies them access to current information sources and restricts teaching to traditional methods (Okwakol 2008).
The fourth pointer to the inadequate teaching and learning facilities characteristic of public universities in Kenya is the inadequate and poorly equipped science laboratories and workshop equipment in institutions offering scientific and technical subjects. (Gudo et al. 2011) .This undermines considerably the practical elements of the curricula offered.
In addition, many universities lack sufficient funds to sustain a meaningful research capacity. Munene (2016). Existing research evidence suggests that rising enrolments without corresponding increases in facility pose a great threat to the quality of education provided by universities. The poor quality and shortage of physical facilities subject students to difficult learning conditions, thereby causing the quality of education provided and hence the quality of the graduates produced by these institutions questionable.
According to Gudo et al. (2011), the ultimate consequence is the mass production of graduates who have certificates without matching academic and technical competence, which in turn makes attempts by universities to meet their objectives a mirage and an exercise in futility. Speaking specifically about the Kenyan situation, Ogot (2002) posited that the quality of higher education in Kenya could be questionable because of inadequate facilities. A major outcome of insufficient teaching and learning facilities facing many Kenyan public universities is overcrowding.
The significant growth in enrolments coupled with declining funding has resulted in more and more students joining universities whose facilities were originally designed to accommodate far fewer students (Boit and Kipkoech 2012).The obvious outcome of this is overcrowding especially in classrooms. In some universities, for example, sometimes as many as 1,000 students occupy a single classroom. So severe is the crisis of overcrowding that it is not uncommon to find students standing inside or outside of lecture halls or even perched on windows during lectures’. Similar sentiments are expressed by Gudo et al. (2011) who posited that the shortage in classroom space causes students to miss sitting space or to attend lectures sitting outside of the classroom. Overcrowding make lectures increasingly hard to teach and manage effectively It also leads to students’ lack of concentration and attention to lectures. This has obvious detrimental effects on the quality of student learning, the overall quality of graduate’s.
Finally, students in public universities must also contend with distracting living conditions, due to poor quality hostels and official accommodation without adequate healthcare facilities.
2.3 Inadequate and poorly Trained Academic Staff
Central to the success of higher education institutions are the educational inputs available to them (UNESCO 2005b). These, in addition to buildings and equipment, include staff who can offer well-designed academic programmes .Highly qualified and effective faculty and support staff is a prerequisite for a quality university education. These should also have enough resources to support their efforts, including adequate lecture halls, well- equipped laboratories, and adequate library space equipped with current reading materials, access to the most up-to-date computer and other communication technology and access to adequate research funds. Unfortunately, many universities continue experience tremendous growth in enrolments without an equivalent growth in staffing, thereby suffering severe deficiencies in the academic staff vital to deliver a quality education.
In Kenya, for example, the demand for teaching staff outstrips the supply in both public and private universities (Gudo et al. 2011). Furthermore, because of the funding crisis affecting Kenyan universities, lecturers are poorly trained and, thus, not properly qualified (Munene 2016).
The staffing situation is compounded by brain drain (Damtew and Altbach 2004) that has involved the flight of well-qualified academics mostly to North America and Europe and in some cases to Southern Africa, where pay is much better. This is mainly caused by the poor remuneration of academics, the undervaluing of faculty and non- conducive working environment (Gudo et al. 2011) .These make it difficult for universities to recruit and retain good scholars in their fields as there are often more lucrative opportunities in the business world or in some foreign lands. As a result of brain drain, a significant proportion of faculty teaching in many universities in Kenya in particular today, do not have the minimum academic qualification of a PhD. This was evident when CUE cancelled PhD’s offered by Kisii University when it was discovered that the students only attended class for six months.
To cope with the severe shortages in academic staff, universities have adopted varied strategies. In some universities, survival tactics have included assigning graduate students and tutorial fellows full teaching responsibilities (Odebero 2010); some of them teaching both junior and senior students.
A second coping mechanism is increased workload for faculty. According to Owuor (2012) in many Kenyan universities lecturers teach more than 36 hours a week and have no offices. In addition, the shortage of qualified academics has forced many to fill existing academic positions with under-qualified (or incompetent) persons, including graduates from unaccredited universities in India and North America (Gudo et al. 2011; Kauffeldt 2009).Normally, such persons would not have qualified to join the university system. Other survival tactics include encouraging Master’s students to take the project instead of the thesis option because it is less rigorous compared to the thesis and the appointing of supervisors from other disciplines where they have no basis on content (Odebero 2010). With specific reference to supervision, for one to be effective, one must not only be in the same discipline as the student but, most important, also share the research interests of the student No doubt, the quality of university education suffers a great setback due to inadequate, poorly trained and incompetent academic staff (Gogo 2002).For effective teaching to occur at the university, it requires a minimum ratio of lecturing staff against the number of enrolled students.
Based on the Commission for University Education (CUE), the recommended lecturer-student ratio should be 1:50 for theoretical-based courses and 1:20 for practical-based courses (CUE 2016) .The shortage of academic staff has rendered it impossible to meet these thresholds .Poor pay, lack of incentive or reward for good performance and the undervaluation of academic staff by universities cause those who occupy teaching positions in Kenyan universities to have low commitment to their work and play a limited role in the life of their employing institution. (Okioga et al. 2012).
Many of them spend most of their time moonlighting: doing consultancy work, working part-time at several institutions or engaging in other forms of income-generating activities so as to be able to supplement the meager pay earned from their full-time job. This distracts them from performing their roles effectively. They devote little attention to research or improving their teaching. The situation is best summed up by Bloom and Ahmad (2000:24) who stated that:
“Many faculty work part time at several institutions, devote little attention to research or to improving their teaching and play little or no role in the life of the institution employing them. Faculty members are often more interested in teaching another course – often at an unaccredited school – rather than increasing their presence and commitment to the main institutions with which they are affiliated. With wages so low, it is difficult to condemn such behavior. ”
Bloom and Ahmad’s (2000:24) sentiments are echoed by Holm (2010).
“Many, if not most African academics dedicate surprisingly little time teaching, advising students, conducting research, writing scholarly articles and serving as administrators. Often they are away from their universities for a combined period equals as much as half or more of the academic year. ”
A closer look at some of the coping mechanisms embraced by universities to deal with the shortage of academic staff reveals that they are detrimental to the delivery of quality education and negatively influence academic rigour (Gudo et al. 2011). For instance, assigning tutorial fellows and graduate students full teaching responsibilities undermines the quality of education provided by universities. The gravity of the adverse effects of this practice is best understood within the context of postgraduate training in many universities today. The heavy workloads many lecturers have to carry render them ineffective in their teaching, supervision and assessment of graduate students.
This is supported by Ngolovoi (2006), who expressed that increased workload and lack of competence among lecturers could be affecting the delivery of quality education to university students in Kenya. Moonlighting and the consequent excessive absenteeism also negatively impact on quality. The net effects of these are poorly trained graduates who employers must invest in considerably for them to acquire the knowledge and skills required to perform competently the duties and responsibilities assigned in the work environment. The effect of poorly trained lecturers is especially evident in the training of postgraduate students, where students are expected to acquire research skills which most of their lecturers may have a poor mastery of.
2.4 Massification of Higher Education.
There is a growing concern over the quality of education offered in Kenyan universities in the face of recent mass admissions. Findings from research seem to be pointing to a decline in the quality of education offered in tertiary institutions and it is believed that the concern for quality will continue to rise even as the demand for university education also rises. This demand is based on the perceived benefits accruing from higher education and the desire by governments to increase access to university education.
This increased demand has led to universities opening up ill equipped branches in hitherto unheard of places. It is important to note that quality is an overriding criterion in gauging excellence in university education. Hence universities desiring to be considered world-class must do so within the context of quality.
Due to mass admissions more and more courses have been introduced in both public and private tertiary institutions. However, some of these courses do not take the needs of the labor market into account. Massification has therefore led to the devaluation of higher education by providing a “plethora of quasi-academic courses” including degrees in knitwear, beauty therapy, and golf course management, which have absolutely no seeming relevance to development on a global scale (Lomas, 2001).
In Kenya, many more students graduate in courses that are not relevant to the needs of the country and therefore end up joining the thousands of unsuccessful job applicants who do not understand how they have a degree but cannot get employment. Evidence from research notes that greater portions of higher education graduates are unemployed or suffer underemployed, as they are working in jobs they have not trained on. This is not only due to the large numbers of graduates being churned out but also largely attributable to the deficit in the quality and relevance of higher education.
Assié-Lumumba (2006) goes further to say that even though education enrolment in Africa is lower than in other regions of the world, this sub-sector has been growing disproportionately faster than the national economies, including the availability of employment in the labour market and other supportive infrastructure and institutions .Obanya (2004) describes this situation as “education for the world of no work”. This opinion is seconded by (Adu ; Orivel 2006), who assert that the rapid increase in tertiary enrolments is not necessarily based on the needs of the employment sector.
2.5 Case Study; German Apprenticeship
The foundation of the system is the occupational concept. Apprentices are trained in their choice occupation according to nationally valid standards. The overall aim is to equip the individual with abilities and skills – referred to as professional ability to act – necessary for the exercise of a qualified vocational activity in a changing working environment. This way the interests of the apprentices to gain a labor-market relevant qualification and of the companies to get a skilled labor force are intended to be balanced. The occupation also serves as resource for social integration and personal identification.
Most of Germany’s highly-skilled workforce has gone through the dual system of vocational education and training (VET). This case study explains the basic principle of the system Germany’s dual-track vocational training program , known as the VET, is the route that around half a million apprentices in Germany take to a skilled profession every year. (There are a total of about 1.3 million apprentices training every year in Germany.)
The dual-track VET’s two components are: classroom study in specialized trade schools and supervised, on-the-job work experience. Over the course of two to four years, apprentices spend a couple of days a week, or even blocks of several weeks at a time, at a vocational school ( Berufsschule) where they obtain theoretical knowledge for their occupation of choice. At the same time, a company or public sector institution hosts the apprentices where they gain practical knowledge and hands-on experience. The novices usually spend 60 percent of their time in the workplace under supervision of a certified trainer, and 40 percent in the classroom.
More than one-third of all pupils graduating from secondary school in Germany enter a vocational training program, of which one-third go on to pursue a single-track, school-based VET and two-thirds the dual-track counterpart. Approximately 68 percent of the latter system’s graduates enter the workforce in the company where they were trained immediately after training.
The apprenticeship positions are available across all sectors of the economy and public administration. The VET boasts roughly 330 officially recognized training programs, all listed on Planet-Beruf.net The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) publishes a list of occupations and respective salaries that apprentices receive, as well as the guide “Vocational Training in Germany.” The host companies’ pay apprentices a monthly salary, which averages nearly €800. (Ksh.96, 000) The sum increases every year of the apprenticeship.
About 51 percent of Germany’s workers are skilled workers trained in the VET. A further 11 percent of workers are master craftsmen, and vocational and technical college graduates. They are also part of the VET but not of the dual-track system. In order to enter the advanced training, one must have Berufsschule certification and several years of additional work experience. The technicians-in-training study at technical colleges (Fachschule) for two years and graduate upon passage of an examination.Germany’s vocational schools partner with around 430,000 companies and more than 80 percent of large companies hire apprentices.
Historical roots of the in-company training go back to the middle Ages. Individual craft and trade associations, the guilds, regulated apprenticeships for their enterprises. A systematic form of training in enterprise and school, the so-called master craftsmen training, developed out of those occupational regulations. As the process of industrialization began, the industries adopted the concept of craft training and adapted it to their needs. They regulated vocational training through the establishment of a mandatory catalogue of skills and knowledge and guidelines for the duration of the training.
Gradually, “national standards” were created for the qualification of skilled workers. But it was not until after the Second World War, in 1953, that vocational training in the crafts was regulated under the Crafts and Trade Code (Gesetz zur Ordnung des Handwerks –HwO). In 1969 the Vocational Training Act (BBiG) was adopted and amended in 2005.
Vocational schools also look back on a long tradition that can be traced back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Although compulsory vocational school instruction was not introduced until 1938, the public authorities could already oblige enterprises to send their apprentices to vocational school more than a hundred years ago. Because of the importance of apprenticeships for the economy the German government puts a high emphasis on the promotion of the system. It addresses the challenges through initiatives and programmes. The core of the dual apprenticeship system is the institutionalized cooperation of the federal government, federal states and the social partners based on a principle of consensus.
Myths around four-year university courses have captured such a strong place in the collective consciousness of Kenyans. Everyone “knows” that college is necessary to succeed, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who don’t go seem odd (or dumb), and the strength of this signal gets amplified by how much money we invest in upholding the myth.
Caplan ( ) summarizes it like this:
“Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better?—?indeed, more civilized?—?way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.” Even the success of Bill Gates (the Harvard drop-out) could not shatter the precious notion that education?—?even if not essential to earning money?—?must at least be “good for the soul.”
A College degree is the new ‘salvation’ for majority of Kenyans. The narrative goes like this: go to college, get a good job, save for retirement, and you’re set for life. To make matters worse, government subsidies cement the idea of higher education as an entitlement, making the prospects for rolling it back seem grim. Until this narrative is debunked, higher education institutions will continue churning out useless graduates that have no requisite skills for the job market.
Higher education in Kenya can be characterized as a high priesthood of academics and administrators, who hold the keys of absolution. The degree sends a strong signal to future employers that the student has done the requisite conforming and is ready for the job market, but it says nothing about what things of value the student actually learned during their time in school.
Through the subtopics below the paper will give a philosophical conclusion to the study and show that indeed higher education in Kenya overrated.
3.1 Social Desirability Bias
Higher education in Kenya is like a product where the customer tries to get as little out of it as possible. Being a “full-time” student is actually more like a part-time job, with students averaging just 27 hours of academic work per week (including time in class). The rest of the time they are surfing the web, playing sports, going to parties, or just hanging out with friends.
Surveys of employers reveal that college graduates are embarrassingly ignorant in impractical areas that schools emphasize in their curriculum. As shown through the case study in chapter two vocational training programs are better off in lieu of higher education on the grounds that it’s better to at least learn something of value while acquiring a certification than to learn next to nothing while acquiring degrees.
The apprenticeship system works well in Germany and Switzerland, so why hasn’t it caught on in Kenya. It’s only after the huge infrastructural projects that the Kenyan government has realized the need for vocational training since the Chinese have been importing labor.
This obsession with higher education can be blamed on “social desirability bias,” which makes people want to say or do only socially acceptable norms. In 2018, it’s still not cool to trash college. Vocational training/ apprenticeships are seen as somehow a second – class option. Telling your son or daughter to consider vocational training is like telling them, “Lower your expectations.”
Nobel Prize laureate, Michael Spence, best captures this social desirability bias by arguing that it’s merely a signal of high productivity in the labor market. It is not for it to have an intrinsic value; showing that you have higher education is a way to signal high ability to employers.
Higher education also confers status, and living in a society like Kenya where ones status is of most importance, university degrees are seen as the ultimate ticket to that middle class life. It is not enough anymore to actually be competent; one must have a university certificate to get to the interview. University has become the gateway to middle-class jobs with dignity, a situation which places a great deal of power in the hands of the gate-keepers.
Some people believe that universities serve some kind of social mobility function. i.e. they produce a ‘meritocracy’ that raises the best and brightest up from the bottom of society and provides them with the status and income their intellectual talents deserve, while assigning the unfortunate ‘fools’ to their proper place as factory workers and street sweepers.
Theoretically, what we have is a classic “arms race”, in which every rational individual has an incentive to expend precious resources (time and money) competing with each other even though the foreseeable consequences are inefficient for all. Everyone wants to see the parade. It is rational for every shorter person to stand on tiptoes to see well. But this makes it harder for everyone else to see, so they must also stand on tiptoes. The end result is that the tallest people, and those who bagged places at the front (rich parents), are still the only ones with a good view.
3.2 Credential inflation
Higher Education can raise income by teaching useful job skills, transforming unproductive youths into productive adults. But education can also raise income by certifying (or “signaling”) their employability. Academic success – even in a field such as poetry, history or Latin – helps convince employers of your braininess, work ethic, conformity and other desired traits. No wonder students hunt for prestige universities such as Cambridge and Oxford whose degrees are thought to be superior than let’s say Nairobi university or St. Paul university. It’s the easiest way to impress and signal prospective employers.
Selfishly speaking, to be clear, it doesn’t matter much why education pays. Excel in school and the labor market (usually) rewards you; what more do you need to know
Teaching useful skills enriches the student by enriching society. Merely minting extra credentials, in contrast, enriches the student at the expense of others. After all, if your degree increases your pay but not your productivity, your gain must be society’s loss. This can be best explained by the unusual numbers in the bachelors degree programme in procurement or supplies management. The avenues of corruption and accruing wealth are easy after attaining the required certification. The motivation to earn more rather than ensuring safeguards to public money is what is driving majority to study this course.
Picture a world where everyone spent four more years at college, showing off for employers without learning any practical skills. Personally, you probably wouldn’t want to drop out because you would look bad by comparison. But, socially, what would be the point of making everyone jump through yet another series of hoops?
This may seem like a fanciful example, but it’s not. As education levels have increased, employers have indeed increased their educational expectations. Researchers call this process “credential inflation”. Nowadays, if you want to work, you typically need three more years of education than your grandparents would have needed for one and the same job. Sure, intellectually demanding industries such as IT have grown. But the main effect of the vast expansion of education is that legions of waiters, bartenders, security guards and secretaries (Administrative assistants)now need college degrees. They don’t need these degrees to actually do their jobs, of course; they just need them to outshine the competition. And while students’ motives are clear – they’re running to get higher education lest they fall behind – fuelling credential inflation.
Credential inflation saves companies lots of time in their recruitment process if applicants can self-sort themselves into different types and ability levels. The idea here is that you decide who you want to become and then engage in conspicuously expensive signaling exercises to demonstrate your commitment and ability for that goal. e.g. If you’re smart enough to pass the entrance exam, and sufficiently committed to a business career to spend 2 years and 4 Million doing an MBA at a high ranked business school then of course you’ll be of interest to a high-powered investment bank looking for someone silly enough to put themselves through 45 hours per week for the next 5 years. Naturally what you studied is completely irrelevant – MBAs are notoriously irrelevant to actual work in business. Only its ability to reliably signal quality and commitment matters. It’s like wearing a fancy suit to an interview, only much more so. This also explains why MBAs are so exorbitantly expensive: their cost is essential to their function in separating out the truly committed.
Hardly any graduate’s content-specific knowledge will be useful to their working life, but spending 4 years or so in the institutional setting of a university can condition them to understand and internalize the way the middle class world works: how to think and talk and dress; what to aspire to; how to organize your working life as a career; how institutions work; etc. This may be what people mean when they talk about the civic virtue produced by a higher education. Of more direct interest to employers, it trains helpful attitudes for the modern white-collar workplace, such as respect for deadlines; ability to work semi-independently within a large hierarchical bureaucracy; tolerance of others; etc. This may also explain the particular premium for holders of numerate degrees over arts graduates: people who study engineering or natural sciences have tougher class-schedules and so can be generally assumed to have developed more suitable bourgeois work habits. And unlike arts students they can probably count and use spreadsheets. The value of this conditioning to the graduates themselves, of course, depends on the number of such white-collar jobs available in the economy.
But I would go further, for I do not see much evidence that universities themselves particularly care about the human capital of their students (or, come to that, their enlightenment). If they do, why do they go about teaching so inefficiently? Why do they emphasize academic knowledge about arcane issues rather than try to teach people how-to-do useful things
If universities care about or respect their students, why do they let professors decide what to teach, often resulting in courses based on the professors’ idiosyncratic and generally irrelevant academic research interests being inflicted on captive audiences? Why do many universities use grading curves if education itself is the goal? It’s no wonder so many students cheat, and professors make so little effort to stop them, when it is clear to all concerned that the only valuable thing about this education is the degree certificate that is the passport to middle-class life. (Note that if an academic education was either intrinsically valuable or taught useful skills, cheating wouldn’t make sense.)
Universities simply have no interest in teaching what would actually be of most use to their students and contribute most to their future success. To do so would go directly against their academic identity – concerned with pure theoretical knowledge and defiantly ignorant of the real world – and the institutional structure of the modern university that has been organized to suit it. When universities make extravagant claims about how much they care about their students’ intellectual development that is called marketing. They want the respectability of being servants of the public good, and all the subsidies they can get, without actually having to serve the public in general or students in particular. In fact the interests of students are systematically neglected at every level.
The administration understands the university as an institution whose success depends on its prestige and size. In this perspective, the competitiveness of student admissions serves as a means for demonstrating the university’s status (it contributes to their ranking).
But the actual education of students is a cost-center, and so administrations plot continually to teach fewer, cheaper courses in bigger classes with ever more exploited Teaching Assistants and Adjunct Professors doing the actual work. That would explain the current obsession by Kenyan universities to teach humanities and arts courses as opposed to STEM.
Despite its inclusion in every university’s mission statement, education is not actually a core value or interest of the contemporary university. If students become enlightened or skilled during their time at university that is largely an accidental effect of their official education.
To be sure this is a simplification and exaggeration of an enormous socio-political-economic complex that turns over hundreds of billions a year, employs millions of people, and directly affects the lives of up to half the population of some countries. There are polytechnic ‘universities’ which do focus on providing high quality vocational education that has been proved to be successful.
At present it is not generally possible for young people to select higher education institutions and programmes on the basis of what the education they receive there will actually do for them. They lack the relevant information about educational quality; neither prices nor rankings presently provide an accurate guide. They lack the power to negotiate the unbundling of the dimensions of education they do want. Students lack the ability to choose on the basis of education itself, without having to worry about the extraneous consequences for their future status (e.g. the prestige of their university). That is not right.
If we as a society actually want universities that teach well and are sincerely concerned with meeting the needs of students, we must reform the present incentives and institutional structures in line with Kenya’s socio-economic blueprint, Vision 2030.These reforms will also need to have political backing because of the public good aspect of higher education.
To reshape the role and contribution of higher education to the society, we will also have to develop and promulgate new metrics that give prospective students a way to critically assess the different dimensions and qualities of higher education at different institutions and programmes. That would make it possible for them to think through carefully what they want from a university. In particular, the Commission for University Education should develop metrics about the actual contribution that higher education make to the lives of students – not only about how much graduates earn (although that is not insignificant) but also graduates’ personal critical assessment of the contribution university education has made to their lives, aside from the experience of being referred to as a university graduate.
Entrance to the middle class should also not depend upon a graduation certificate. Even if one thinks that meritocracy is a good idea, academic prowess is a grossly unjust and arbitrary foundation for one. The present system treats the non-academically successful as inferior and demeans their contribution to our society, economy, and politics. It forces many people unsuited to academic studies enter traditional academic institutions in an effort to achieve middle class status, thereby wasting their lives and talents when they fail dismally and traumatically at the many universities that resemble drop-out factories.
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