Affirmative action in education

We must be ready to show preference where it is due


By Abdiqani Ismail

The debate about minimum qualification for admission to teachers training college has resurfaced following a Kenya National Qualifications Authority directive that seeks to lower the entry requirement for the college.

The directive was opposed by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) on grounds that it would lower the quality of teaching, where the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, had cited the constitutional provision on affirmative action – which she justified with the idea that students perform well when accorded the environment to thrive.

According to Mohamed, students from marginalized regions lack such opportunities; consequently, the lower grades they post are not a question of intelligence but a result of environmental constraints. In an advisory opinion, Attorney General Kihara Kariuki sided with the TSC, putting into jeopardy the chances of hundreds of students feature who are already in training colleges.

While the matter is still pending in court, it raises the question of what happened to the idea of affirmative action, nine years after the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010.

Generally, affirmative action means a deliberate move to reform or eliminate past and present discrimination using a set of public policies and initiatives designed to help streamline affairs in terms of gender, colour or geographical location. It involves a proactive policy of making special efforts in employment decisions, college entrance and other areas of public behaviour as a way of compensating for past discrimination.


Affirmative action is justified as being based on the idea of elevating certain groups of people even on the absence of current discrimination who are at a disadvantage because of effect of past discrimination against some members of the group; it is an attempt to level the playing field.

Affirmative action is, to a large extent, seen as transformational, as it aims at enriching social welfare by providing quality education, better housing, equitable employment and other benefits. Timely and just affirmative action is based on the premise that preference is shown to members of a designated group.   

In the Kenyan situation, the Constitution, at Article 56, provides the basic legal hinge. It requires the State to put in place affirmative action programs to ensure that minorities and marginalised groups among others, participate and are represented in governance, and provided with special opportunities for educational, economic and access to employment. However, there exist no framework for implementation, which gives leeway for gaps. For this to be dealt with, the Executive must have the will to pursue such affirmative action endeavours by presenting policies to enhance enforcement.

Government policies

For affirmative action to have the desired effect, government action and policies must act and be seen to work towards that goal.

The argument of maintaining quality – as the basis of rejecting the suggested affirmative action, fails to take into account what really the basic need here is. While a student in Nairobi or Nyeri may be concerned about quality, the child in Mandera does not even have a teacher! The idea is not even about quality or maintaining certain standards; it is about creating conditions whereby students from discriminated backgrounds could be brought into the starting line-up of a race – still many others do not even know the existence of such a race!

The lack of framework to implement and enforce affirmative action is glaring. While trendy political movements have sought to promote hot, money-making topics such as the two thirds gender rule, the socio- economic needs of marginalized communities have been relegated to the back stage.


Why has no single legislator, even those from marginalised communities, drafted a bill to provide framework for the implementation and enforcement of this right? To be clear, in what is a case of a tragedy of the commons, the electorate itself does not care to question this simple fact!

Granted, affirmative action is not, by itself, an adequate response to decades of systematic marginalization, but it is an indispensable tool in inching us towards some sense of an equitable society.

To contextualise the situation, in Garissa County, only one student applied to join a teacher’s training college in the last intake. The point here is not how many students want to become teachers; but in a region where getting a C+ is as difficult as it gets, many do not qualify in the first place. How do we then equate students from such backgrounds to those in Western Kenya?

It is simply absurd.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here