Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha is correct in wanting to make higher education more meaningful and wholesome, but Kenyans would also be correct in wondering just how beneficial it currently is.
The question of whether formal education is still the solution to the growing problem of unemployment, is one that must be asked, especially in the wake of frightening reports indicating that the number of unemployed graduates in Kenya is unprecedentedly high.
In the olden times, an undergraduate degree was gold. That piece of paper was all it took to land a good job, or pursue other self-fulfilling endeavours. Second or third degrees were pure, refined treasures, mostly reserved for those drawn either into the world of research, or academia.
A 2016 report released by CareerBuilder, an employment website based in the US, found that even for entry level positions, more and more employers are now targeting people with advanced qualifications.
Nearly 32 per cent of employers are bumping up education requirements for new hires. A good 27 per cent are recruiting those who hold masters degrees for positions that used to only require four-year degrees, and 37 per cent are hiring college grads for positions that had been primarily held by those with high school diplomas.
In these disturbing findings, lies the answer to the inexplicable rise in the clamour for higher education in Kenya. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that between the 2011 and 2017, the number of students graduating with postgraduate degrees jumped from 16,153 to 67,407.
With a shrinking job market and diminishing employment prospects, it makes sense to question the need for education, when it has become crystal clear that it may not automatically result in good jobs.
This week, five young people tell us why they decided to pursue higher education.
Sarah Kabochi, 30, Advocate of the High Court
After completing her undergraduate degree in law, Sarah immediately enrolled at the Kenya School of Law (KSL) for the mandatory one-and-half year diploma in law.
In November 2013, she was applied for her Masters in law. In January of 2014, she started her Master of Laws course in International Disputes Resolution and Management in Extractive Industries at the University of Dundee, Scotland.
She had many reasons to get into graduate school immediately after graduating from KSL.
“I have always been passionate about arbitration, and I feared that I was not going to get a job in that area with just my Bachelor’s degree. It felt like everyone had an undergraduate degree. I needed something special to set me apart from the rest and improve my employment prospects. For my pupillage, I applied to about 10 law firms, and received a 100 per cent failure. There were no vacancies. This was quite disheartening. I always knew I would eventually get a Masters degree, and I did not want to begin my career and then have to pause and go back to school. So that is the other reason I opted to go back to school right after,” Sarah says.
However, when she returned home, not much had changed. In fact, she felt like colleagues who had stayed behind had built impressive careers, and were now way ahead of her.
“It took me a whole year to get a job, and I had to go back to where I had done my pupillage. It was like starting right where I had left when others had moved forward. It was discouraging, I developed a bad attitude and even thought that the masters degree had been a waste of time,” she says.
Sarah believes that she got her current job (working at an energy sector law-firm) by sheer luck. And after a long time, she felt she was now finally applying the knowledge she had painstakingly acquired during her intense Masters programme.
“Everything has straightened out now, and I am at a place where I can see the actual value of my masters degree. I can now see it opening doors for me.”
Duncan Wanyama, 38, Development Communication practitioner
Duncan always wanted to pursue further education. Initially, this had nothing to do with getting a job. He just wanted to be an inspiration and provide a better future for his family, and he felt that advancing education was a good place to begin.
“I wasn’t able to get an education when I was younger because I come from a very humble, polygamous family. At home, the money was too limited to see me through college. After high school, I travelled to Nairobi and ended up at an orphanage, where I trained to be a mechanic and a driver. Eventually I was employed at my current workplace,” he says.
In 2012, when he was 32 years, the management of the organisation where he worked thought he was a good communicator, and recommended that he take a course in Public Relations. For this, he was sponsored for a one year course at Kenya Institute of Management.
“After my Diploma, I tried to apply for jobs outside my organisation, but nothing was forthcoming,” he says.
Taking the PR course made him realise that his brain was still active, and that he was truly passionate about communication. He also believed that getting a degree would improve his chances of getting a job, so he took a loan in 2013 and enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Afterwards, he got a scholarship to pursue a masters course in Development Communication at the same institution. But despite these qualifications, his career prospects are yet to start looking up.
“I am still a driver and mechanic, even with all these academic papers which I had assumed would earn me passage into the job market. I have applied for hundreds of jobs so far and been invited for several interviews, but nothing has come out of it. I thought that entry into the job market required only formal education, valuable connections, and relatives in high places. I have all these but things haven’t worked out for me,” he says.
Over-qualification has also come up as a challenge in his quest for a job.
“I have had a job offer revoked because the person I would be working under only had only a Bachelor’s degree,” he says.
“But I am happy now. Happier than I was when I did not have all these academic certificates. I still hope to be employed one day, but education for me has now become about reaching my full potential, and not just about getting a job.
Otieno Otieno, 27, MA Student, University of Nairobi
Otieno has never applied for a job since he graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Nairobi. He has never even applied for a TSC number.
“I completed my undergraduate studies in 2016 and in September 2017, I started my masters course at UoN after I was awarded a scholarship. Before that I had enrolled for an MBA course in January 2017. After I got the scholarship, I switched from the Education Department, to Literature, which is what I was passionate about,” he says.
Initially, Otieno had doubts about getting absorbed in the job market with only his bachelor’s degree.
“I suspected that getting employed would be a challenge. I knew it would take time for me to get absorbed by the Teachers’ Service Commission, and sitting around waiting would have wasted my time, so I decided to go back to school while I am still young. I aim to have a PhD by the time I turn 30,” he says.
Even as he graduated with his Bachelor’s, Otieno knew at the back of his mind that he would go back to school immediately afterwards. He has always dreamed of becoming a scholar, not necessarily to get employment in the corporate world.
“At this point in my life, I would not want to venture into the corporate world because I feel it will derail my goal of becoming a scholar. Maybe I will consider working in the corporate world after I complete my PhD,” he says. “I have heard some of my classmates say that their undergraduate degrees did not make them more viable for employment, so they are back in school assuming that they more academic certificates they have, the more chances they will have of getting good jobs.”
Mercy Kibuthu, 25, Public Relations specialist
In 2016, Mercy graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Mount Kenya University. In September 2017, she enrolled for a Masters degree in Communication Studies at the University of Nairobi.
“I did not look for a job after my graduation. My parents were willing to support my education so that I could succeed and reach my goals in life,” she says.
Another thing that informed the decision to further her education was her desire to redirect her career.
“During my undergraduate days, I realised that I loved Public Relations, so when the opportunity to pursue a Masters degree came up, I jumped at it excitedly because I would finally get a chance to learn more about the subject,” she says.
Mercy is currently on her first job at a PR company as she awaits her graduation later this year. She believes she is more competent, and more confident of her abilities, quite unlike what she would be if she had not made the decision to further her studies.
Catherine Chebet, 30, Peace and Conflict researcher
After completing her undergraduate studies in Sociology and Political Science in 2011, Catherine searched for a job in her area of interest without success.
“I had a degree and have always been interested in the NGO world and in community development. But a job in these fields was not forthcoming. Towards the end of 2012, I ended up in a dead end job at a bank as a teller,” she says.
But even as she worked at the bank, she did not give up the search for a job she was passionate about. Six months into the banking job, her perseverance bore fruits. She got a job at a local NGO, and subsequently quit her banking job.
“I was happy to finally be in a career I loved, but I quickly learnt that NGO jobs are mostly short term. After one year, the project I was working on ended, and I became jobless again, but with lots of insights about the NGO world this time. I learnt that a lot of research is involved if one is to implement a project successfully,” she says.
A year after her contract elapsed, Catherine enrolled for a Masters degree in Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. To pay her school fees, she used part of her savings, and her family chipped in with the rest of the money.
“Going back to school was a challenge I was willing to undertake, and it was also a way to make myself more eligible for employment. The exposure I got while working at the NGO drew me into the world of research, and I knew that to become good at my job, I needed to have exquisite research skills, which I could acquire by taking a Masters course,” she says.
As luck would have it, she got an opportunity to work at a research organisation that dealt with investigating peace and conflict issues within Africa.
“The second degree was important because it helped me know more about research and project implementation. I combine my work experience and education to improve my expertise. At my current workplace, I do a lot of research, and Monitoring and Evaluation of projects, and my Masters degree has been very beneficial,” she says.
Catherine intends to pursue further education and to get a PhD, as she hopes to help seal that gap between research and practice.
“Eventually I want to package research in a way that is easily palatable for those involved in both corporate and research, or academia. I am also keen on conducting more research, so further education for me is definitely not a luxury,” she says. “I even intend to begin my second Masters course in January.”