We Don’t Need No Education

There’s no need to attend university. The world is a wondrous place awash with myriad opportunities, all one has to do is seek them.

Or is it?

Nairobi’s CBD, for example, feels like every second building houses a university campus. The place is veritably colonized by the campuses of far-flung universities. “It’s a brave new world” we seem to say in this country, and what better way to conquer it than with a degree in hand?

There is, however, a group of young Kenyans that is not going to university despite this expanded choice. They are heading instead to highly technical colleges where they focus intensively on one subject for a year or two. These are not to be confused with our traditional youth polytechnics, which seem to somehow have fallen out of national discourse. These are more like the latter-day manifestations of the computer colleges once popular in the 1990s.

Speaking to these young men and women, they tell stories of long school hours comparable to a return to secondary school. During this time, they pack in the equivalent of a four-year course sometimes in as little as nine months. Their argument is this: ‘I am out to get a qualification or a highly valuable skill, not so much a piece of paper that brands me as having attended one prestigious university or other.’

They are attending such colleges as BIFA (Buruburu Institute of Fine Ats), Nairobits and Shang Tao. They leave these places with a wide array of skills in their chosen field and get into the job market three, sometimes four, years before their university-educated peers. Is this a great alternative to the slog of four years of tertiary education?

There are numerous arguments against the ivory tower. MOOCs (massive open online courses) tell us the internet is the answer. Mention is regularly made of famous people who did not complete university as exemplars of the fact that one doesn’t need to go to university to be rich, famous, or talented. As we speak, we forget that there are people who are passing up university, maybe being overlooked.

Why is that?

It’s important to analyse the place of university in this country. We have moved from a country which had very few graduates in 1990 to one where a degree seems commonplace. Just a generation ago, only the select few were afforded the chance to have this sort of education. Now, more than ever, Kenya is producing more graduates than it knows what to do with.

The question has been asked, more than once, whether it makes sense to push for everyone to have a chance to go to university. Is it an inalienable right or one that lends the graduate some social cachet and not much else? It could be argued that some of the best minds in many fields are resident in universities across the globe. Attending one is a chance to interact with them, to learn, to collaborate. If anything, this is the great appeal of such schools as Harvard or Oxford. Leaders in whichever field are to be found in these institutions,ergo it makes sense to pursue a chance to learn at the feet of masters. There are those that argue that university is chiefly a hub that connects people with varied interests or lends them a chance to explore those interests. Essentially, those people argue, universities are places of serendipity. One never knows what will come of it. For those who elect to pass up the opportunity, what do they miss or gain?  Why would they pass it up, to begin with?

Money is a key factor in the decision-making process. The lack of it, or the desire to make some. University is still a luxury only a few people can afford yet post-secondary skills are essential if one is to acquire a job that pays more than a living wage. These colleges essentially fill a gap that is not being spoken about. They lend young people a chance to improve their lot without breaking the bank. This is a quality that cannot be gainsaid. Even government-sponsored students in Kenyan public universities have to shell out upwards of KSh 40,000 a year to get an education. Grants and bursaries exist but they will generally not cover all the cost. Bearing in mind the fact that most people live on under $2 a day, this is a huge load to shoulder.

It could also be said that this is a knowledge economy. It’s not about the paper you have as much as the skills you possess. If one thinks about it like that, then these focused colleges are the way to go. If one thinks of it through the lens of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, then these young Kenyans are actually better prepared for the world of work than the university graduates in their fields. They leave college well versed in their field and head out to internships or jobs that further enrich them. Moreover, those vaunted MOOCs are a perfect way to gain extra skills on their own time as they work.

Universities lend themselves to a little art, some music, some sport, and some community service. These are however available only to those that actively seek them out. Essentially, some people in university may have the same, maybe fewer, opportunities for enrichment as those who do not attend university. For me, the question is how to reconcile these opportunities with the expediency of a focused college.

One of the things that emerged was a bias among Kenyan employers against those without degrees. While they gladly hire alumni of these colleges, they do so at lower rates, viewing them as cheap (but nonetheless good) labour. This bias coupled with a reticence on the part of many universities to acknowledge the skills these young people possess whenever they apply for degree courses, leaves these students well between a rock and a hard place.

As we go forward, we need to consider what it means to be educated. We also need to think about issues of access, the justice of pay and the opportunities for enrichment that we as a country can afford young people, whether or not they attend university.

8 Replies to “We Don’t Need No Education”

  1. The thing is I don’t know of any Kenyan campus/ uni or whatever you described above that’s Job oriented. We are thought things in school which are not practical in real life. Talk of complex engineering processes and mathematical theories that once out of that lecture room you sure as dead are never going to here of again. We don’t manufacture anything! All our infrastructure is build for us. We import even the most basic commodities. I dropped out of uni coz I felt that even thou I was about to graduate I didn’t know what I was doing. Am now in business. I will advice any young Kenyan/ African to start a business with the school fees instead and work hard at it. You won’t regret!

  2. “Education develops the intellect; and the intellect distinguishes man from other creatures. It is education that enables man to harness nature and utilize her resources for the well-being and improvement of his life. The key for the betterment and completeness of modern living is education. But, ‘ Man cannot live by bread alone ‘. Man, after all, is also composed of intellect and soul. Therefore, education in general, and higher education in particular, must aim to provide, beyond the physical, food for the intellect and soul. That education which ignores man’s intrinsic nature, and neglects his intellect and reasoning power can not be considered true education.” Hail Selassie I
    8-4-4 can’t be considered true education.. much like brain-wash education

  3. There is a big disconnect between a College degree and the work place. Graduated last Yr from UoN and any jo that I have done has nothing absolutely to do with what I went to school for. They tell me that a masters degree will get me what I want and then I remembered the same words from when I was joining campus. I cant tell exactly what I learnt in Campus.

  4. Education is the key to betterment…goes a reggae song. There is some truth in that. Education is a body of knowledge acquired from being educated (in whatever way, school, parents, friends, on-the-job, 8-4-4, gcse). It can also be an enlightening experience. Going to college/university is a humbling experience. We go to school to learn how to live. The attitude that suggest that school delays one to make money brings about a very dangerous situation to live in. It takes us back to the times when things didn’t matter if they were not of any commercial value. It is wrong to shun or disgrace people who are in school to better their lives. If we all left school and used our school fees on businesses, sources of income would greatly reduce. Let some go academics and others do business; knowledge will be preserved and the economy will grow. (win-win)

    That said…. it is unfortunate that arts, music, home science, wood work, metal-work, agriculture and business education were removed from the syllabus. These subjects taught people how to think and contributed to all rounded persons in society. One could discover their talents or even nurture them at a cost that most people can afford since it was in the curriculum. Now you have to find it in college or in a private school where you pay extra for it.

  5. I see more and more #ShangTao kids are taking up graphics and animation jobs but I also see traditional employers (TV stations, Ad agencies and Production companies especially) treating them dismally. They are generally offered less money and are less likely to rise up their respective job ladders. This is a problem too. The workplace is glad to take them on at lower rates and it hinders their ability to improve on their educations and lives. The secret to escaping this fate lies in these young people establishing networks of collaboration and work outside of traditional workplaces. I think the best strategy for them would be to consider entering business for themselves alongside or immediately after their initial studies This would give them control over their wages and flexible work schedules allowing for further training and or education. (Which also probably means they should strongly consider taking part-time business courses as well)

  6. For one to understand the current discourse on education and its resident upheavals such as those brilliantly articulated in the article, one must understand the underlying philosophical bases that have been resident for almost a 1000 years. The philosophy of education has been caught in two divergent streams since the European renaissance age. The classical view promulgated by the Scholastic schools (monasteries) endeavoured at developing the human person according to his nature. This was largely informed as a result of or in response to some of the dark scenes of human and social decay witnessed during dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. Education from this view was built on the slopes of returning the human person to a place of honour and civility. As a result, the first European universities: Oxford (England), Bologna(Italy) and Paris (France) focused on liberal arts and were religiously orthodox. Eastern education on the hand, for example in China followed the same stream as its western counterparts. China for a large part of its 2000 history had undergone social and civil strife hence its education focused on social and moral teaching which were fomented under Kung Fu Tze (Confucius) and Lao Tzu (Taoism) among others. Hence higher education as a result was distinguish from technical or vocational studies such as blacksmith, engineering which were apprentice based. The former was seen as superior hence taught to aristocrats and the latter inferior. However, with the onset of the European age of exploration and the industrial age, the classical view of education was up turned. The growth of new industries (Assembly Line) and New settlements in North and South America essentially meant that society needed more technicians to spur the progress of the Modern civilization. Previously, most technicians had been taught through an apprenticeship with a master from an early age however in a market based economy, there was need for more blacksmiths for example not beholden to their village but were able to serve the needs of many villages. Thus, the fine line between Universities and Technical schools were blurred as more universities started to provide more vocational/technical studies. Moreover, with the growth of humanist views prompted by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Kierkegaard and Locke and reshaped by the utilitarian principles developed by Descartes, Voltaire and Marx/Smith, the view of the human person was additionally altered. From a classical view, man or rather his nature was the centre of Education, according him the instruments to develop and become more human. But from an utilitarian perspective, society was the centre therefore education was meant to make man a better agent for society. This discourse has generated the current crisis we see in education today. Because when man is merely an agent for society then it means every human activity is focused and measured by other aspects than those geared at improving the human being. The economy, the state and other social institutions are more important than the human person and such human well being often is at the bottom pile of profits. Is there a problem in this? One could argue that a great economy necessarily leads to greater human happiness but as reality has shown that is not the case. In conclusion, the idea of Education has been both informed by circumstance and philosophy (the view of man) and as such the institutions created under it propagate these philosophies. Therefore, the larger question is; should our institutions accommodate and evolve from a place where man is the centre of human progress or from a place where is a mere agent?

    1. Thank you Afronomad for this fantastic view. Institutions should begin form a place where man is the centre of human progress to achieve great agents of society. The two instances are complementary, because man is the centre of human progress only if he acts as a progressive agent for the society.

  7. University education deals with big picture kind of skills and ideals not the nitty gritty of DIY stuff. Uni Gradutes are supposed t be job creators since they are mostly proffessionals who are an authority in their field. A graduate lawyer, doctor, Engineer can set up their own practice in theory but practically needs some experience to be trustworthy. A guy who has done 6 months in a college cannot claim to have enough to do any of the above.

    That Graduates tarmac is probably a testament to the broken economic system than to the failure of university education. I would not advise anyone to bypass a uni degree for the meer benefits they stand to accrue aside from the academics.

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