By Kevin Motaroki
Performing artist and scholar Salome Mshai once argued, “We need to be wary of the tendency to consider our education system solely as a factory churning out human resources, and begin to think about how we must use it to prepare the next generation to participate fully in all aspects of life.” Her summary of what ails Kenya’s education system is as relevant today as it was after independence.
Ever since the founding president Jomo Kenyatta declared “poverty, ignorance and disease” as the greatest threats to our nationhood, the overriding objective of successive governments has been to achieve political and economic stability, material prosperity, peace and social progress. This has hardly been achieved. Various prescriptions have been suggested as being requisite in addressing the internal challenges that make these objectives impossible to attain, not because of any shortcomings in their execution, but largely on account of the hackneyed nature of our national policies, which have often failed to veer off traditional thinking.
Economic theories postulate that increases in investment in human and physical capital should result in increases in economic growth. In the Kenyan case, this ought to be facilitated by a responsive system of education, one that ably responds to market gaps and demands. But, by its nature, our education system has been incapable of meeting this demand, or addressing corresponding needs.
Writing in the Journal of Emerging Trends in Economics and Management Sciences in 2012, Nigerian economists Peter Samuel, Lionel Effiom and Michael Baghebo identify institutional failure as the primary reason Nigeria has been unable to meet its millennium development goals. The authors argue that the inability of Nigeria’s economy to create employment opportunities is attributed to a manifestation of the failure of key institutions in the finance, education, manufacturing and service sectors.
The authors note thus: “Academic institutions, particularly universities, churning out large harvests of graduates yearly who find it difficult to adjust to the social and economic problems of the society… The education they receive does not equip them with skills beyond those required to pass examinations”.
This situation is no different from what the experience is at home. Since independence, we have churned policies that simply react to emerging challenges. Simply put, our system is not pre-emptive; it is reactive. Consider the current imbroglio on digital migration. For a country that clustered in the Third World, our policy makers ought to set the pace for “what needs to be”, as opposed to “what is”. Where media managers reacting to change, they should be setting trends on what the market ought to be like after digital migration. This is a classic example of professionals who have been taught to excel in the conventional industry situation.
A quality labour market, it has been said often, is determined by focused investments in human capital through the quality of education and training programmes offered in a country. But quality education is dependent on the method of instruction.
The disconnect between education and the labour market, says Dr Susan Lyria, a lecturer at the Catholic University of East Africa, has been occasioned by our emphasis on obtaining certification as opposed to the skills demanded by the job market. She sums it up thus:
“While the Kenyan education system has succeeded, to a certain extent, to teach specific technical skills, the gap is on teaching communication and behavioural skills. The system is too academic/exam oriented. As a results many academically skills students fail to get or even create jobs that require communication or negotiation skills.”
An industry analyst at audit and accounting firm KPMG who prefers to remain anonymous, agreeing with Dr Lyria’s assessment, sees the disconnect as having more to do with student orientation and insensitivity of labour market demands, and less of policy challenges.
“Policies do matter, but there is a reason tertiary education institutions have research centres. They conduct market analyses and research but then sit on their findings. I do not think any government would refuse to consider empirical research findings if such results are presented to them,” she says.
“Job seekers fail to find placement primarily because of disconnects between the skills they have and those demanded by the market. In the course of our work, we have determined from different employers that this disconnect could be cured if curriculum developers sought their input in determining what learners are taught (This one is done during the various processes of stakeholder workshops and needs assessment stage). No employer wants to hire someone, and then train one the practical knowledge one would have acquired through proper instruction and orientation. In any case, one cannot acquire innovative, entrepreneurship skills if they are not imparted during the learning process,” she says.
This question posed by Dr Lyria’s sum up her assessment of the mess in the education sector: Are university graduates in Kenya adequately educated? How are teaching and training modalities offered by higher learning institutions in tune with relevance to employability and entrepreneurship among the graduates in Kenya? The solution, she says “is to emphasise these skills to ensure that academic focus is in sync with labour market demands”, and this is only attainable through collaboration between the two institutions.
Dr Julius Jwan, the chief executive of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, speaking in 2015, concurred with Dr Lyria’s assessment. The problem, he noted, goes beyond simply revamping the academic aspect of the existing curriculum, and includes workplace and ethnic diversity, which would provide the orientation workers need to fit into today’s multifaceted work places. He observes:
“Institutions of higher education must realise the value of imparting soft skills – such as people and relational skills – besides academic knowledge. When such are embedded in training, the result is an all-round employee who can adapt to changes as and when they come.”
The economic drive we require to truly get into the element of a thriving economy can only be realised through an audit and realignment of our education system to respond to existing market gaps
This, he asserts, is something any good curriculum ought to anticipate and facilitate. KICD is mandated to develop curriculum and curriculum support materials for levels of training below the university.
“But for minor reviews, our curriculum has not been reformed since 2002. But a lot has changed and continues to. As a matter of urgency, the Institute is carrying out a needs assessment in readiness of a major review of the current curriculum, which will eventually incorporate policy response that will match anticipated needs in the work place. We have already initiated the process, and we seek to develop a competence based curriculum – where we will be seeking people’s views so that we can accommodate the needs of every cluster of pupil and student,” he explained.
“This does not mean that we will have a necessarily universal document, but it will respond to the post-2015 labour market requirements. For the long term, we have already agreed on a regional curriculum, in the spirit of tapping into the vast labour market in the region. For instance, if a student’s orientation is to be a carpenter, we should be able to facilitate him, through training and orientation, so that he is the best carpenter there is, who can work anywhere because he has confidence in his skills. We want to avoid a situation where if one cannot become a nurse, one is considered a ‘reject’, so to speak, as to be dismissed as being useless.”
Other factors that have informed the need to review the curriculum are the Constitution of Kenya 2010, Kenya vision 2030 and the East African protocol.
Conducting a study on the contribution of human capital – investing in education – Nelson Wawire and Fredrick Mafukho in “Investment in Human Capital through Institutions of Higher Education for the Revival of Kenya’s Economy” observe that Kenya’s the slump in Kenya’s economic growth can be attributed to a lag in vocational and technical training, and the aloofness shown by those tasked with tertiary education. They make the following recommendations:
“Institutions of higher education in Kenya should encourage lifelong learning for those working in both private and public sectors of the economy since technology changes with time… to allow workers to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge needed for economic growth. The anticipated review of the curriculum will address the issue of the mismatch of skills that are currently being provided and the skills needed at the workplace.”
Speaking to the question of collaboration between tertiary institutions and employers is the concept of industrial attachment, the feedback from which ought to inform improvements and changes to the curriculum. Sadly, the trend is that both students and their instructors only go through the rigors of attachment as a formality and an obligation.
“The objective of attachment is to boost learners’ confidence in what they do. But because the numbers of students often overwhelm assessors, this aspect does not serve its core purpose. Internship is the practical side of education, which demands that follow-ups be made and assessments done diligently, so that the feedback obtained can be used to streamline training. When institutions of higher learning fail to make keen follow-up on such a core aspect, it follows that the calibre of graduates churned out may not fit into the prevailing labour market,” concluded Jwan.
But the blame does not entirely lie with tertiary education institutions. The State, which should play the role of facilitator, has been painfully inadequate in equipping public universities to set the pace for technological innovation. Because they do not have access to funds to drive innovation through acquiring the physical assets required to teach science and technical subjects, remunerate instructors or carry out scientific tests, institutions of higher learning tend to focus more on the arts, which require a little less input financially and in terms of structures. This being the case, it follows that graduates from these institutions may not add much value to the country’s production and service sub sectors.
For as long as we ignore the shortcomings in the education system, attaining the post-independence goals will elude us. The economic drive we require to truly get into the element of a thriving economy can only be realised through an audit and realignment of our education system to respond to existing market gaps, and to anticipate and meet arising issues.
For starters, out teaching and training methods ought to be tailored in such a way that learners are equipped with current, modern practical skills that can facilitate immediate solutions to market demands, which are chiefly technological, which will serve to minimise the high rate of theoretical orientation to enable us transit into collaborative, learner-oriented practical learning. Innovation requires that both learners and instructors be critical thinkers who can make adaptive decisions, a trait often exhibited by entrepreneurs and job creators. (