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We must think critically about the future of education

Monday August 5 2019

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Last week on the NTV’s Sidebar program, I participated in a panel discussion about the ongoing debate on the state of Universities in Kenya.

With me were Prof Karuti Kanyinga of the University of Nairobi and David Aduda, Nation Media Group's head of business development. The program was anchored by Debarl Inea.

Long after the debate, my mind was still searching for solutions to the problem. It was becoming clear that these reforms are wider than what the policy makers are attempting to do.

As they say, where there's smoke, there's fire. This metaphor implies that rumours or things that we say without sufficient evidence have some foundation that they could be true. This is precisely what we are going through with respect to education reforms and we are not alone.

The narrative on higher education in Kenya is that our universities are: not producing employable graduates; issuing questionable degrees; using outdated teaching methodologies; not doing research and teaching wrong courses.

All these are being said without scientific evidence that these problems are systemic in all institutions of higher learning.

This narrative grows stronger by the day to the extent that, it is possible that some universities have flouted regulations and compromised their standards. In which case we need to strengthen regulations in order to protect consumers.

But regulation alone may not be sufficient to rectify the mess in our higher education, because education of the future is going to be radically different from what we know of it today.
The problem is that no one really understands exactly what we need to meet the future demands of education. Instead, we simply say we need to reform our education. Like my friend Prof Kanyinga says, we need to define our problem clearly before we embark on any form of reforms in educations.

I agree with him. Although there is clearly a need for reforms, virtually everyone has some hidden agenda that may not be acceptable to everybody else.

In recent times we have started to vilify arts education in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Yet there are thousands of young people with STEM-based college education that are still unemployed.

CHANGE TACT

Others are advocating for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) but despite the push for STEAM, there are suspicion that the curriculum is wanting and that we need to change tact.

Even if we were to agree on curriculum, and aside from the internal management issues in universities, differences of opinion exist along approach, structure, people’s aspirations and financing.

It is argued that current teaching approaches are more geared towards academics instead of focusing on creative thinking, problem-based learning, design thinking, expanded problem solving capabilities, and other innovative approaches.

These areas are supposed to enhance creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism that will in turn create the much-needed jobs.

The priority in reforms should then focus on the ability to change teaching approaches and introduction of new curriculum in a similar manner as it is happening with the lower school where competence-based curriculum is underway.

On people’s aspirations, we must take into consideration promises of the past with respect to education. The mantra has been, get a good education if you want to succeed. Virtually every young citizen’s aspiration, and their parents’, is to get an education to change their livelihood.

The role of policy, then, is to continue to encourage people to work towards achieving their dreams and maximise their potential. And those of us in academia, we must work towards producing the best that can work anywhere in the world.

It is easy to craft solutions like limiting further expansion of universities but implementation will always be our Achilles heel. This is because we have always ignored our political, social and economic environment that impacts on our decisions.

One will always have to deal with these issues in addressing people’s aspirations if implementation is to succeed. Let people dream, succeed and, of course, fail. These are costs for building a stable and non-discriminatory society.

ONE EMPLOYER

On structure and financing, there is need to prescribe benchmarked standards. There is need to radically review the Universities Act by bringing all public universities under one employer and leverage that to deal with the problem of tribalism that is slowly tearing down universities.

Each university should have clear Key Performance Indicators with respect to research and development (generating new ideas and knowledge) leading to new innovations that are applicable to local problems, assist students to create start-ups and incubate them as a strategy to creating wealth for their respective institutions.

In seeking to create new ideas and knowledge, the universities will inevitably begin moving towards the future of education that will largely be driven by the emerging exponential technologies.

What we need at the moment is investments in research and development, less bureaucracy and good managers to help universities contribute to economic development.

It was envisaged that Kenya will invest at least one percentage of Gross Domestic Product in research and development but that have never been achieved.

The problems with public universities are many that we need to investigate properly and build the case for reforms. We also need an inclusive process that will lead to sustainable solutions.

It is, however, not the policy maker’s role to determine the optimal number of universities in the country. Let that be the role of market dynamics and an effective regulatory regime.

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