Those of us who finished our education from the 1970s to the 1980s have one very fond recollection of those times. And this is that back in those days, jobs were plentiful and anyone who was fortunate to pass either the O-level or the A-level exams would from that point no longer be a financial burden to their parents.
For whether you ended up at one of the many teachers’ training colleges, the medical training colleges (for nurses, clinical officers, etc), the Utalii College (tourism), or the University of Nairobi — back then the only university, and as such the summit of youthful aspirations — you were sure to be supported by the government all through the duration of your studies, and then employed promptly on graduation.
Indeed, it was quite common for the letters from government ministries, posting you to this job or that, to be delivered to you before you even packed your belongings having completed your final exams.
Not everyone went to work for the government, of course. But even the most favoured or ambitious among us took comfort in having a ‘Plan B’ in that “posting letter”, even as they set their sights on a career in banking, insurance, consultancy, or other lucrative private sector opportunities.
This is a world which must seem incredibly remote now to the young graduates leaving our roughly 70 universities currently. It is simply not possible for them to imagine getting jobs so easily. For them, as LP Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country”.
Their experience, when it comes to employment, is of having to wait two or three years to get their foot on the ladder to any kind of decent career.
Even careers such as medicine — long regarded as a golden bridge to automatic entry into the upper middle-class — now have their own numerous frustrations and delays. This includes instances where there are apparently some counties where the locals would rather be treated by a quack, who is “one of our own”, rather than have a qualified doctor who is “an outsider”.
We may have greatly increased the opportunities for higher education in this country but we have failed to create jobs, which,, after all, are the whole point of seeking advanced training of any kind.
So how are we to revive “the Kenyan dream”? How are we to persuade young Kenyans that this is still a country where it pays to strive towards a good education? How can we again become a country where even children from the most forsaken corners have a chance to rise up in the world and fulfill their potential?
I would say that we who have in decades long past received the benefits of a country in which such values were taken for granted, must seek ways to create more jobs. In short, the question of how Kenya will create economic opportunity for its huge “youth bulge” is really more important than that of who will be our next President.
The solution to this problem is not a mystery. There are actually many foreign investors, from both Asia and Europe, who wish to set up their regional operations here in Kenya. This is to enable them to take advantage of the East African Community market, which has about 150 million people.
They are interested, in particular, in selling goods and services to the region’s growing middle-class, with its proven purchasing power. And yet the prospect of such investment in manufacturing or service industries is often limited by — among other considerations — the fact that Kenya does not have an adequate pool of technologically skilled manpower.
Of the many efforts being made to address this unique combination of crisis and opportunity — the existential despair of unemployed educated Kenyans, alongside the possibility of massive new investment from Europe and Asia — there is perhaps none more likely to have a transformational impact than the proposed “German East Africa University of Applied Science”.
And this proposed new institution is of such importance, that it deserves to be explained in some detail, as I will do in a subsequent column.