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February 23, 2019

Invest in quality basic education

Kilimani primary school children read out loud. /File
Kilimani primary school children read out loud. /File

There is considerable discontent with education, generally. The government, teachers, parents, students and employers are frustrated. Nobody seems to get what they want out of education. But what should society really get out of our collective and colossal investment in education?

Governments are exasperated. The education sector is like a bottomless pit. Funding education is like feeding an insatiable beast. Teachers feel overburdened and under compensated.

Enrolment has soared and discipline has collapsed, delinquency is on the rise. Students feel they have to work too hard to meet the requirements of the curriculum and their study programmes.

The graduates of our education systems, across the region, are deemed unfit for the workplace. Students who drop out of primary school often lack basic literacy and numeracy skills commensurate with their grade.

According to a study commissioned by the Inter University Council of East Africa in 2014, over 50 per cent of university graduates from East Africa are unfit for work. This is according to employers.

There is frustration at many levels. Many, including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, believe that Africa’s education system is not investing enough in training its youth in science, technology, math and engineering at the tertiary level. More recently there is a frenzy of investment in technical and vocational education and training.

There is also growing concern about the rapid rise in unemployment among graduates at all levels of the education system; from primary to university. Equally worrying is the structure of Africa’s new growth exuberance and whether it is sufficient to generate a diversity of work opportunities for a burgeoning workforce.

In my view, we have problems at three levels. First, the quality of students coming out the system is poor; they lack the basic numeracy and literacy skills. Second, the graduates lack the necessary technical skills needed by the economy. Third, the economy is not generating jobs for the expanding workforce.

What is not clear is how we make the jump from an education system that produces semi-numerate and nearly illiterate graduates who are staggered by rising unemployment, to determining that somehow Africa’s problem will be solved by expanding TVET and STEM programmes.

What we need is a strong foundation in early childhood and basic education. We need to invest in good teachers and leverage the best technology to deliver child-centred, personalised learning to take care of the unique learning needs of our children.

To rush to build capacity in vocational education and entrepreneurship, as a substitute for weak investment in low quality basic education, would be a mistake. Our children need to learn how to think, reason and innovate to solve problems and create high-quality knowledge jobs. Africa does not need to be choked with unthinking, robotic technicians.

A sophisticated modern economy that harnesses Africa’s agricultural potential and launches a new industrial age must be built on a capacity to think, reason analytically and innovate. Africa’s future demands knowledge workers not menial vocational skills.


Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University




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