EVIL TIMES

Higher education apocalypse is at hand

In Summary
  • This means that if you are a young Kenyan with a PhD, you had better also have a driving licence.
  • For there is a very real possibility that you will soon end up being an Uber driver

Often, really bad news can be detected not from one newspaper headline announcing a major disaster, but rather from a combination of two or three headline stories.

For the Kenyan tertiary education sector, the forecast of doom came in two news stories, both given prominence in the local media.

This is a topic I have written on before. But as it is so central to what may be called “the Kenyan dream” it is worthy of all the emphasis it can get.

 

And what is this Kenyan dream? Well, its focus is on tertiary education, and our national myth is that any barefoot schoolchild can one day join the professional middle class if he or she works hard enough and gets a university degree.

The first news report was that the Treasury is in discussions with the International Monetary Fund, over a large sum needed to bridge the budget deficit – a deficit which was in many ways unavoidable given the reduced tax revenues resulting from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The second significant news item I have in mind here is worth quoting in detail:

“Universities are facing an acute financial crisis due to inadequate funding from the government, a situation that could lead to mass layoffs when the institutions open in January…The universities have cumulatively requested Sh20 billion additional funding to get them out of their financial woes as well as cushion them from debt.”

Combined, these two news items herald an apocalypse in the Kenyan tertiary education sector.

First let us note that the number of PhD holders in the country has grown exponentially over the years, not primarily due to an endless demand for college tutors and lecturers, but more because of a lack of employment opportunities.

They had a strategy for job destruction. They had no strategy for job creation. Many of the policies the IMF pursued as they were killing off jobs made job creation almost impossible
Prof Joseph Stiglitz

After a year or so of unsuccessfully looking for employment, many young Kenyan graduates will switch their focus to obtaining additional degrees, initially a master’s degree and thereafter a PhD. So, you end up with a huge surplus of well-educated young Kenyans, mostly working part time at public or private universities, as therein lie some of the few opportunities available for those who hold advanced degrees.

 

And of course, there remains a high demand for college education. For although a degree of disillusionment has set in over the practical benefits of university education, in general, parents still cling to the dream of seeing their kids acquire a college degree.

Then consider how the IMF works:

Prof Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2001) is perhaps the most eminent critic of both the IMF and the World Bank. In an interview with the Global Policy Forum, back in 2011, he gave perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of why IMF policies – however rational they may seem – will often bring great hardship to the populations of nations who turn to the Fund for support.

This is what he said: “They had a strategy for job destruction. They had no strategy for job creation. Many of the policies the IMF pursued as they were killing off jobs made job creation almost impossible.”

This slash-and-burn approach of the IMF suggests that Kenya can at this point be compared to a business that has gone into receivership. The first thing the official receiver will look at is where you can save on expenditure. And they will usually be far more ruthless than the business owner would be, in deciding what items of expenditure have to be eliminated.

So at the very moment that Kenyan universities are pleading for financial support from the government, that very government has invited an institution that is famous for promoting policies that lead to job losses on a massive scale, to look into our affairs.

There can only be one outcome from this. The tertiary education sector, which has been growing at such an impressive pace over the past decades, will have to abruptly reverse gears, and engage in a vast and ruthless retrenchment of staff.

In practical terms, this means that if you are a young Kenyan with a PhD, you had better also have a driving licence. For there is a very real possibility that you will soon end up being an Uber driver.