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February 23, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: Kibaki's noble initiative now requires fresh thinking


Roughly 15 years ago, our newly-elected President of the time, Mwai Kibaki, made a historic decision. This was that – without any thought to the cost implications or the overall annual budget of those days – all children who had not been able to enrol in primary schools, should immediately be allowed to go straight into the classroom.

To the great surprise of just about everyone, about 1.5 million children turned up at schools around the country. Few had realised that Kenya had so many children who were not enrolled in the public-school system, simply because their parents could not afford the school fees. As this was a morally unambiguous initiative, the donor community nations all rallied around, and somehow, the “free primary school” project, as it came to be known, was a success.

But that was 15 years ago. Enough time for even the youngest of those kids to complete their eight years of primary education; go on to four years of secondary education (which we are told is by now also “free”); and finally, be ready to embark on their tertiary education.

A recent headline in a local newspaper revealed that this final phase is not going very well. The headline I have in mind is from mid-August: ‘The University of Nairobi freezes dons hiring as enrolment dips by 30,000’. The news report went on to explain that whereas in 2015, the university had 98,715 students enrolled, that figure had dropped by about one-third to 67,827 in 2018. Now there are many possible reasons for this huge drop in enrolment in Kenya’s premier public university.

What was specified in the article was that there had been fewer applicants who attained the C+ minimum entry requirement. But this cannot be the whole story. Especially as a ready route around this barrier already exists in the “bridging courses” that most universities offer, to allow those who cannot be admitted directly to degree courses to study for a year or so to acquire the improved results in specific subjects that they need for admission.

I think other factors also come into it. And of these, perhaps the most significant one is that after initially encouraging civil servants of various categories (but especially schoolteachers) to pursue degree courses as a path to advancement in their careers, the government found that so many of these newly-minted degree holders were seeking these promotions, that the rules were changed.

This point was summarised very nicely in yet another newspaper headline (also from mid-August): ‘Higher Education Will Not Ensure Promotion, says TSC boss’.

The report explained that the Teachers Service Commission “CEO Nancy Macharia told the National Assembly’s Education Committee that promotion will be based on experience and work input and not extra academic qualifications. Mrs Macharia said additional degrees will be considered only for those seeking administrative positions such as head teachers and deputies. The Kenya National Union of Teachers has been pushing for the promotion of teachers who have attained higher qualifications since 2014, arguing that more than 30,000 had attained degrees.”

All this reveals a fundamental turning point in the history of the nation: For the first time since Independence, university education (in and of itself) is no longer the golden key to the middle class.

And Kibaki’s noble initiative of free primary education, only hastened this inevitable day, when the returns on investment in higher education, would begin on a downward slide. Up to the year 2,000 or thereabouts, there was no more guaranteed escape from poverty than the acquisition of a university degree.

And as such, it made perfect sense that – in the pursuit of the much-coveted university degree – parents should make every sacrifice (including selling land or livestock) to see their kids through to university; or primary schoolteachers exercise the most heroic self-denial, to save enough to put themselves through a degree course.

But now we find that with tens of thousands of degree holders unemployed – or denied their anticipated promotions – many Kenyans are no longer willing to make a personal investment in tertiary education.

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