Two big myths inform public discourse on university education policy in Kenya today.
The first is that the proliferation of students entering universities has reduced the quality of the average student admitted.
So the posh and serious, who themselves hold university degrees of one kind or another, repeat the unexamined claim that today’s university graduates are poorly-trained and suffer unemployment for that reason.
This preposterous claim has had the effect of putting universities and colleges under pressure to prove that they provide market-ready graduates. The pressure manifests itself in the numerous adverts ran by both public and private universities claiming that they use information technology to provide first-class education.
They seem oblivious to the fact that information technology merely is a mechanism for delivering education and does not by itself elevate the cognition of a student.
A ‘VALUABLE GOAL’
What shows that the posh and serious crowd are substituting their biases for fact is the lack of numbers to support their argument.
A cursory review of the Economic Survey provided at zero cost by the government of Kenya here shows that in 2013, there were a total of 196,000 university students pursing either undergraduate or graduate degrees in public universities.
In the same year, the chartered private universities together had a total student body of 37,672.
In context, the number of students in primary education in 2013 was nearly 45 times greater than those in university education.
At the same time the Kenyan population grows by nearly 1 million people a year, showing that at the present rate of enrollment, it will take the whole of this generation and the next before Kenya comes close to attaining a university enrollment rate of half of all adults.
In essence, therefore, attainment of universal tertiary education is still a long way off and Kenyans seeking university education are pursuing a valuable goal in an economically rational way.
Considering that most students taking courses in university finance their studies through loans or private means, it is important to respect their decision to obtain education.
In this instance there is no special knowledge that people who already possesses their own degrees should impart to another who is trying to attain their own.
The second fallacy also comes as an article of faith that private universities in Kenya provide superior education in comparison to publicly- funded universities.
As the data cited above reveals, public universities together maintain a large student body and therefore have highly-stressed residential and teaching facilities.
While these stresses suggest that enrollment has grown much faster than the expansion of student and teaching facilities, it does not support the claim that public universities provide inferior university education in Kenya.
KENYA’S BEST MINDS
In the quest to understand this perception that public universities do not provide good preparation for students, I have posed questions on how to demonstrate the claim.
What I hear instead is that students from public university are blacklisted by certain firms on account of loutish behavior from their student leadership or during conflict with their school’s administration.
To be upset by the tendency of a few students among many to cause damage to vehicles and business premises is justifiable, but that does not imply that some among them aren’t Kenya’s finest physicists, anthropologists, sociologists or whatever else universities prepare them to be.
Employers must signal their own displeasure with bad and violent behaviour but to claim that all these fine students are incapable of good work is a fallacy.
Coming to my experience, I think that students who learn in our publicly-funded universities are frequently Kenya’s best minds, notwithstanding the pressures that they face in learning.
Publicly-funded universities have a long way to go in opening access to students from poorer households, but they are more likely to admit them than private colleges. Sneering at students from the former may reflect status biases in the absence of facts.
Judging from the quality of students that make applications to undertake internships or occupy open positions at my place of work, I am certain that this claim of superior education from private universities is without foundation.
This public concern for raising education quality in university education should be based on benchmarking against countries with a similar level of income to Kenya.
Tertiary education policy ought not to be based on status biases, saturation of graduates and the lies about superior education from private colleges.
Kwame Owino is the Chief executive Officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame