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Why educational reforms are overdue

Monday December 31 2018

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The ultimate aim of any education system is to equip children with the numeracy, literacy and wider skills that they need to realize their potential, and that their countries need to generate jobs, innovation and economic growth.

These were words of Kevin Watkins in his January 16, 2013 article titled, Too Little Access, Not Enough Learning: Africa’s Twin Deficit in Education, published by Brookings Institute.


Overcrowded classrooms, lack of textbooks, teacher absenteeism and antiquated pedagogical methods that emphasise rote learning are denying students access to education and learning.

New research shows that the much-heralded free learning may be the Achilles' heel of our education.

A 2014 study, An Investigation on Impact of Free Primary Education on Quality of Education in Kenya Primary Schools, published in the Journal of Education and Practice, by Wilfred Njeru, Moses Muiruri, George Njeru, and Ruth Thinguri, revealed that whilst enrollment had gone up, the teacher student ratio and access to textbooks still was wanting several years after the implementation of the programme.

Since 2008, there is much we now know that explains why more reforms are necessary. These reforms must start early on in education as Watkins noted in his study:

The early childhood years set many of Africa’s children on a course for failure in education. There is compelling international evidence that preschool malnutrition has profoundly damaging – and largely irreversible – consequences for the language, memory and motor skills that make effective learning possible and last throughout youth and adulthood. This year, 40 percent of Africa’s children will reach primary school-age having had their education opportunities blighted by hunger. Some two-thirds of the region’s preschool children suffer from anemia – another source of reduced learning achievement.


In 1980 President Moi introduced what became to be known as Nyayo School milk program. This forward-looking policy that was fully funded by the government helped many children not only to escape stunting but also gave them a chance to cope with learning.

Research, including that by Watkins, now confirms that even though Kenya experiences similar problems as other African countries, it is better off with very few (less than 10 percent) learners who fall below the learning threshold when compared to other African countries with more than 50 percent of learners falling below the learning threshold. 

This small gap is indeed large in absolute terms and the reason why we need reforms urgently to make the country competitive.

Although we know that the early childhood education is most critical in the learning life, we appear to pay no serious attention to this critical stage. 

Teachers at this level do not have the required training. Their teaching approach is largely by rote learning often through songs that have no meaning in life. 

In most countries, early childhood (before age eight) education is provided by teachers with degrees in early childhood education and who understand how to develop a creative mind.

Experts say that this is the period when the brains of children develop faster than at any other point in their lives, urging that these years are critical.

They emphasise that the foundations for social skills, self-esteem, perception of the world and moral outlook are established during these years, as well as the development of cognitive skills.


In secondary school, although the government claimed in 2017 that transition from primary had hit 100 percent, the picture is different.

Depending on who you believe, the transition rate from primary to secondary school is anywhere between 85 and 90 percent. 

This is because free education in secondary school is not free as claimed.  Far too many students lack even the basic fees required.

This unremarked want compromises good students admitted to high cost public schools who are forced to transfer to rural day schools that parents can afford. Effectively, the system inadvertently encourages social exclusion by design.

The existing policies are blind to the fact that those with passing grades are mainly the privileged few in mostly urban schools.

Rural schools that lack the necessary infrastructure, teachers and supervision languish in the darkness of desolation. The few scholarships available do not even begin to scratch the surface in terms of the huge need for assistance.

Transition to University/Tertiary nosedives to less than 20 percent. This year, only 14 percent will see the door of university and perhaps another 5 percent will join tertiary institutions, as there is considerable lack of space, many of these institutions having been converted into universities.


While at the Ministry of Information and Communications, I attempted to change the then College of Communications, Mbagathi, into a University of Applied Sciences offering both Diploma and degree courses but focused on application (How to do it). 

Someone at the Attorney General’s Office did not like the idea and simply changed the enabling legislation to read as University.

My attempt to influence the philosophy of the institution with partnerships of the Koran Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and become more aligned to applied education failed. 

The administrators sent to the University assumed that it was meant to become a traditional university.

What I was attempting to do 10 years ago was reaffirmed by Tim Cook, Apple Chief Executive Officer, last week. 

He said, "There's a confusion about China. The popular conception is that companies come to China because of low labour cost. I'm not sure what part of China they go to but the truth is China stopped being the low labour cost country many years ago. And that is not the reason to come to China from a supply point of view. The reason is because of the skill, and the quantity of skill in one location and the type of skill it is."


My reform proposal for the year 2019 is to see that all Universities in Kenya that were created as technology centers, including the Technical University of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Technical University of Mombasa, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, Egerton University, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, and Meru University of Science and Technology, being converted to Universities of Applied Science and Technology immediately to admit both degree, diploma and certificate students where such students can learn how to do things and build capacity that will attract investments.

Our mission should be to become a global source of skills just like China did and India is doing at the moment. 

We must pay attention to what the customer wants by reading in between the lines of what Cook emphasised, "China has moved into very advanced manufacturing, so you find in China the intersection of craftsman kind of skill, and sophisticated robotics and the computer science world. That intersection, which is very rare to find anywhere, that kind of skill, is very important to our business because of the precision and quality level that we like. The thing that most people focus on if they're a foreigner coming to China is the size of the market, and obviously it's the biggest market in the world in so many areas. But for us, the number one attraction is the quality of the people."

We have a huge untapped resource in young people.  Let’s wake in 2019 to do what is necessary by shifting the population from a disastrous future to a potential population dividend.

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