Crisis in education

By David Matende When schools break this month for the first time holidays, about quarter of the learners will remain in school for a little longer for drilling sessions called “tuition”. These are mostly those who will sit the KCPE and KSCE exams late in the year. Never mind that officially, holiday tuition is banned. In an education setting obsessed with “As”, teachers leave nothing to chance in the quest for coveted grade.  While drilling is the most preferred method, a few of them don’t mind cheating. And if parents are willing to pay for it, so be it. In a scheme where only those with good marks join the few quality schools and only those with excellent grades gain direct entry to universities, the teachers cannot be blamed. It is a cutthroat, mean system where only the “strong” thrive while the weak are condemned to a life of uncertainty as “hustlers”. Trouble is in the scramble for “As”, quality has been compromised, cheating tolerated while unscrupulous people have turned education into one of the most lucrative businesses, now called edu-business. Left out are the marginalized in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods that must sweat blood and tears if they have to appear anywhere near the top. Kenya’s education system, from primary to university, has hit an unprecedented low and unless fixed, the future is bleak. Instead of being a means to an end, education has become an end in itself. It all starts at primary school level. To say that Kenya public primary schools system is in shambles is to understate the problem. Despite the apparently heavy investment, public primary school education is basically in tatters. Since independence, Kenya has prioritised education. However, there was a huge policy shift when the Free Primary Education (FPE) programme was introduced in 2003. FPE was one of the most important pro-poor policies. For the poor families, education provides the only exit from poverty. Free education also showed that Kenya was committed to legal right to free mandatory education for all Within a year of implementation of FPE, primary school enrolment jumped from 61.7% 2002 to 74.17% in 2003. By 2009 net enrolment rate had hit 82.7%. However, while FPE improved enrollment, it ushered in a new low in quality. Studies show that although more children are attending school, very little learning is taking place. Uwezo Kenya found out that only three out of 10 children in Class Three can read a Class Two story. The findings point at a system in a crisis. Children from poor families who attend these schools are therefore given a raw deal. The increase in the number of pupils as a result of FPE should have gone hand in hand with increased funding. However, there was little investment in facilities. Secondly, there has been little effort to improve on the teacher-student ratio. Overcrowded classes that overwhelm teachers are the norm. For able parents, public schools are anathema; they take their children to private schools that have ironically proliferated since the introduction of FPE.  Ordinarily, introduction of free public primary education should lead to a decrease in the demand for private schooling. Enrolment in private schools – which work hard to deliver the “As”, by hook or crook – has massively increased between 2005 and now, to about 14%. An interesting feature has been the proliferation of low-cost private schools mostly in slums and rural areas. Like their elite counterparts, they promise, and sometimes deliver the coveted “As”, more often than not, through drilling methods. Ironically, some of these low-cost private schools charge low fees less than the median per child funding levels in public schools. According to Brookings Africa Growth Initiative some 64% of children in private schools pay fees less than the median per child funding levels in public schools. And neither do they have superior facilities like exclusive private schools or academies, as they like to call themselves.  So why do these so-called academies perform better than public schools? There are many ills in the public school system. Apart from lack of facilities, most teachers in public schools are demoralized, even though their salaries may be better than those of their counterparts in the low-cost private schools. Studies show that rates of teacher absenteeism are high, in some cases chronic. And a significant number of those who show up daily put in very little effort. Impromptu visits to various schools by Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i have exposed the extent of the problem. Parents and other stakeholders do not seem to exercise some form of control over teachers. The teachers union KNUT, is aggressively opposed to any effort by government to make teachers accountable through signing of performance contracts. One would have expected the government to be more creative in finding solutions to problems facing primary schools. But instead of increasing funding (it gives Sh1,020 per child per year), providing infrastructure, hiring more teachers and paying them well, the government imagines that the children need laptops. It is now investing a lot of money not only on the laptops, but also on extending electric power to all the schools. The problems afflicting public primary schools are more or less similar to those afflicting secondary schools. First, the government’s investment in secondary schools has been like a drop in the sea. For over two decades following the introduction of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s, the government never gave a cent to secondary schools, leaving the burden to the over-taxed parents. The government only started funding schools from the early 2000, but even then, what is given to schools is nothing to write home about.  Because of the limited resources, few schools can afford to provide the facilities needed for quality secondary education. This problem afflicts all schools, including national and former provincial schools.  Few of them have modern infrastructure, with most still using facilities built during the colonial time. When the government abandoned funding secondary schools, some school heads took advantage of the situation and started charging very high fees, part of which ended up in their pockets. It was only recently that the government put a ceiling to fees charged by the various categories of schools, following an outcry by poor parents who were unable to raise the high fees charged mainly by national and provincial schools. Last year, close to a million candidates sat for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam with over 80% securing Form One places. However, schools have no capacity to accommodate this large numbers of students and many are bursting at the seams. A survey across the country indicates that there are only a few good secondary schools. This has created stiff competition. In attempts to secure slots in these few good schools, parents, teachers and students go to any length. The huge numbers of candidate applying to join the few quality schools is a symptom of the problems afflicting secondary school education. It means that most have inadequate facilities for quality learning. It is the scramble for the few that leads to practices such as drilling and cheating, which went a notch higher last year, leading to the disqualification of more than 5000 candidates. But if you thought primary and secondary school education is in a crisis, then you do not know what is happening in the university education. A few years ago, Kenyans used to ridicule graduates with degrees from India, saying most of those degrees were obtained from backstreet universities. Few imagined that it would take such a short time for Kenya to join that league. Today, in Kenya’s towns, large or small, university campuses compete for attention with bars, restaurants, supermarkets, brothels, name it. In their quest to ostensibly satisfy the hunger for university education but actually to make money, most universities have set up cheap, low-quality satellite campuses that don’t have even the most basic facilities. They have no libraries, their lecture rooms make a mockery of the name and neither do they have Internet access. Only a few have academic staff with master’s degrees, sometimes from dubious sources. The explosion of universities is a response to the desire for degrees, never mind the quality. University chiefs have taken advantage of the high demand for tertiary education to make a killing, in the process killing standards. The problem was going beyond crisis level when the Kenya’s Commission of University Education (CUE) recently cracked the whip by closing ten of Kisii University’s 13 branches. The new Education minister, Dr Matiang’i then stopped further opening of new campuses. Even established campuses have over time compromised standards by admitting huge numbers and by offering courses they are ill prepared to. Today employers look at graduates from public university with cynical eyes while professional bodies have flatly refused to recognize graduates from certain universities, saying the course they offer produce only half-baked professional. The Engineers Board of Kenya, for instance, has a dim view of engineering courses offered by some universities. It says only 29 out of 67 degree courses offered in public institutions can pass muster. According to the board, Egerton, Eldoret, Kenyatta and Nairobi, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and the Technical Universities of Kenya and Mombasa are offering suspicious engineering courses. The Council of Legal Education earlier last year raised concerns about ability of some universities to offer law courses. It ordered the closure of Moi University’s law school, established in 1994. While public universities are the hardest hit by lack of facilities, some private colleges are not any better .The proliferation of private university colleges in Nairobi’s city centre has not gone unnoticed. In June last year, CUE said city-based campuses that had not adhered to the prescribed standards and guidelines would be closed. Among the crisis sparked by increased university numbers is the crisis of accommodation. There are a combined 280,000 bed spaces in universities and colleges in the country, compared with a student population of 769,000, according to the latest statistics. Kenya’s higher education system has changed significantly in the 53 years since independence. Immediately after independence, the government set up an elite University, the University of Nairobi that catered only for the fortunate few. 252080f6989d737337dd89785db30919 Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.54.08 PM However, after 1990, there was a sudden thirst for university education.  Private universities saw the opportunity and what followed was an unprecedented increase in their numbers. However, they charged high fees.  Public universities then decided to open doors to self-supporting students under what they called the parallel system. The government made the situation worse by adopting a new market-based policy of financing public universities. It drastically reduced funding and asked universities to make their own money. With that, the door had been opened for all sorts of ways to raise revenue. Today, the core business of most public universities seems to be profits, and not provision of quality training. Apart from mounting all imaginable courses and opening places in markets and villages, they’ve set up shopping malls, industrial parks; rented-out property, hotels, name it. With a compromised   academic climate, intellectual dishonesty is the order of the day – outright cheating, students impersonating each other in exams, lecturers demanding money or sex for marks. To address the crisis, experts say universities must be forced a stop unplanned expansion. They say   degree courses must be in tandem with the needs of society and the different universities must aim at specialization in areas where they have competences. The University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Moi University, Egerton University and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, could, for instance, specialize in   high-level research and graduate training while the newer institutions should focus on good-quality undergraduate and master’s level instruction, with an eye to the needs of society. They should reform their faculty development programs to train academic staff that is relevant to the modern need. The state must also change its funding model. Its current “one-size-fits-all” approach is not working, and instead programs should be financed according to how expensive they are to prepare and teach. Most importantly, society should change the attitude towards university education. There should be more emphasis on technical training for a country that hopes to industrialize. As these years candidate embark on “tuition’’ this month, both teachers and students had better think about the kind of education they will receive when the ‘As” they are working so hard to get secure them slots at the universities.

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