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Bar exam failures point to problems in university education

Monday January 29 2018

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The report of the Task Force on Legal Sector Reforms (TSLSR), chaired by prominent lawyer and senior counsel Fred Ojiambo, established that more students from three top public universities fail to make it through the Kenya School of Law (KSL) standardised examinations than those from other institutions offering law degrees.

The shocking findings are likely a result of system failure. To correct the situation, we need a review of the entire education system.

To fully comprehend what I mean by system, I use a theoretical explanation given by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who, in the 1930s, came up with a General Systems Theory and defined it as “a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system's objective”.

In education, for example, we have interrelated systems that work together to produce the best graduates.

DAMNING FEEDBACK

We have had different systems since independence, starting with a 4-4-4-3, a 7-4-2-3 and an 8-4-4 covering primary, secondary, high school and university, with each number representing years of learning before feeding into the next level.

The high schools, for example, feed into the universities, where the processing (teaching) system kicks in to produce graduates (output).
The industry then provides the feedback and if it is negative, a review of the inputs and processes are supposed to be done to correct the situation.

The Council of Legal Education has given damming feedback. It is a strong indictment of our higher education system.

Before reviewing past systems, we are moving towards a 2-6-3-3-3. A comprehensive review on the inputs is necessary before implementing another system.

One of the key variables of the systems is the examination. Earlier, reforms undertaken by Dr Fred Matia’ngi when he was Education Cabinet secretary had exposed the rot that has been going on with the examination system that has for many years poured undeserving students into top universities.

FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

It does not, therefore, come as a surprise that many of those who fail the professional law exams come from top public universities.
However, there are fundamental questions that these institutions must begin to ask themselves.

If many of the students they admitted were weak candidates, how did they manage to go through four years of college without the system detecting their weakness?

It is possible that some of the sub-systems at the universities are faulty.

Underfunding of universities has forced many institutions to take in more students under Module II (self-sponsored programmes), pushing class sizes beyond the threshold.

Teaching a class of 400 students is different from teaching a class of 40. Although the university policy on attendance requires a student to attend at least 75 per cent of lectures, there are no watertight mechanisms for ensuring the policy is followed to the letter.

As such, many students skip classes and only show up for examinations ill-prepared or find ways to cheat through the system.

ROLE OF PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS

The design of each system is such that it can flag the inadequacies of the previous system. That did not happen and that calls for a review of the higher education system.

The Commission for Higher Education has been flagging institutions that do not meet the minimum required standards. To address the problem adequately, they need to work closely with professional organisations like the Law Society of Kenya, the Kenya Medical Association and others to root out bad apples.

They need, for example, to pick those who failed in the bar exams and follow backwards to establish which schools the students went through. Perhaps a pattern will emerge and the damage can be repaired.

Without such checks and balances, we will be inputting garbage and producing garbage.



Figure 1: System theory model | BITANGE NDEMO.
Figure 1: System theory model | BITANGE NDEMO.

Like the Council of Legal Education, the KMA must also conduct similar studies since the products of medical schools perform critical services in the economy.

DIGITAL STUDENTS, ANALOGUE SYSTEMS

These failures are trigger points to examine how university education is offered in Kenya.

Already, some issues are becoming obvious. For example, universities are managing modern students who use all forms of digital gadgets using analogue systems.

With the ballooning number of students at universities, you will need better digital infrastructure to manage a complex set of human beings.
Indeed emerging solutions like Artificial Intelligence could help resolve many of the problems ranging from attendance to better pedagogical methods.

It is awfully difficult to manage large classes and ensure each student has attained minimum attendance as per policy requirements. As is normal at top universities globally, larger classes are further broken down to manageable sizes for tutorials.

To attain the best output for the country’s development, the government must consider optimal resource utilisation where senior faculty can lecture at different universities and leave tutorial fellows to work closely with students and ensure the product (student) meets the minimum requirements by the industry.

QUARTERLY ASSESSMENTS

In my view, more needs to be done at the input level. The current pass rate at high school is skewed, meaning the system is defective.
Under normal circumstances and given the fact that exams present the average test, more students should fall within the average if they all covered the syllabus adequately.

Quarterly assessments should be formalised and become part of the final results from standardised tests.

More importantly, the systems philosophy must change. Learning is not a contest but rather a process to bring the best out of the learners.
Exams therefore should be offered at least four times a year and students can only register for the exams when they are ready to do so.

Changing systems really does not matter if we have no safeguards to ensure that students have the best opportunity to learn and be productive members of society.

Successful implementation of the proposed 2-6-3-3-3 depends on how much involvement there is by stakeholders.

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

The problems of the previous system must be fully understood so that they can be dealt with if they crop up in the processes of implementing a new system.

Any system will have defects one way or another but it is the ability to review and fix the problems that matters most.

In our education system, we have defects at every level that every sub-system needs its own review and fixing without which we will have a completely failed system.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, once said, “The only way you can invent tomorrow is if you break out of the enclosure that the school system has provided for you by the exams written by people who are trained in another generation.”

We must be able to challenge the status quo and break away from the past to change the systems that do address 21st century problems.
The policy framework must be flexible to allow innovative solutions to current problems.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito