Of course, I got no answer.
But still, it was never enough. Everywhere we turned, someone powerful, either in government or private sector, had something nasty to say about the arts. But soon, the cracks in the anti-arts agenda started to show. For instance, the Education CS would say that 80% of university programs were in the arts, when the small programs I headed definitely did not have that number of students that the CS would cite. As far as I know, there is only one fine arts program in the entire 70+ universities in Kenya. No university offers an MFA. Music is offered in only six universities in Kenya. But each time, I said I was very open to being informed by the data.
I’m still very open.
The next curious thing was that the same private sector, which bitterly complained that all students were in the arts, would also support artists at the same time. While they complained about the poor communication skills and attitudes among graduates, the would bash the arts as irrelevant to the market.
One of the high profile attacks against the arts came from Mo Ibrahim, who has famously created a prize to encourage former African presidents to stay in retirement, reportedly told the African Development Bank Forum last year that "I don't want our young people to recite Shakespeare. I want them to know how to build bridges." (I would be curious to know if there’s an African education system which still requires students to recite Shakespeare). Unfortunately, his views picked up by KEPSA a few days later, and a careless journalist reported the words as the position of KEPSA.
But the straw that broke my back was a conversation with an employer. Thinking I was being very accommodating, I approached this person and asked: we’ve heard employers and business associations complain that graduates from the arts do not meet market needs, but at the same time, we hear employers complain that graduates lack skills in communication, collaboration and writing. Could we possibly meet so that we come to an understanding?
This person replied: yes, we do complain about students who don’t have employable skills.
I said, I get that, but the employers condemn the graduates of the very skills that the private sector says it’s looking for in graduates. Can we therefore meet so that we can understand where employers are coming from?
Yes, she said. That is why we partner with universities to offer mentorship to students.
She didn’t understand what I was saying. So I gave up.
Protecting profit and managerial jobs
If the problem of education was the arts, the least the private sector would do is be coherent. But since it is not, it must be defending something else.
And that something else is profit.
The real interest of private sector is not a skilled population to employ. It’s actually the opposite. They need a minimally skilled population that they can pay poorly.
Kenyans are not stupid. If the market had several well-paying technical careers, technical training would be in demand, and Kenyans would be pursuing technical careers. So why aren’t they? The real issue, which the private sector won’t say, is that technical careers in Kenya are not appealing at all. The manufacturing sector just needs manual workers or minimally qualified technicians on horrible working conditions, so that the corporates return a profit.
And even if jobs needing well qualified staff were available, companies are only willing to pay low wages on contract, which means that workers get no benefits like health, education and transport. And in the rare case where the technicians are permanently employed, the salaries are just too small to support immediate and extended family school fees and medical bills, especially given that the government has run down public education and public healthcare.
And naturally, it is human for workers to want to advance in their careers. Except that in technical professions, there’s a ceiling. It’s called management. Professionals who do actual technical work are bossed by career managers who have never held a spanner or a screw driver in their lives. The managers introduce all sorts of fancy management practices for the workers, and so when the technicians are not on the factory floor or in the lab, they are filling management papers that are supposed to improve efficiency. But all that the paperwork does is to make the manager look effecient, and make the workers look like they are not “performing.”
University education in general, not just the arts, stands in the way of unchecked private sector profits, because university training is more than just about employment. University education empowers graduates to ask important questions about their working environment. Graduates, as the doctors proved, are better at knowing when they are being exploited, and at unionizing and asking for better terms. But rather than be honest about their disdain for education, private sector says that the problem is arts degrees.
But arts cannot be the problem because, as I’ve repeatedly said on social media, the private sector and their ally, the Ministry of Education, have not proved that 80% of graduates are in the arts. If we go by the UNESCO definition of arts – performing arts (theatre, film, music), humanities (linguistics, literature, philosophy, history) and visual arts (film and fine arts) – anyone will find that arts and humanities in Kenya are struggling in public universities, and are practically non-existent in private ones.
The truth is, the bulk of university students are in social sciences, especially communication, business, sociology and diplomacy-related programs. The students (and their parents) are gunning for jobs in media, NGOs, government and diplomacy, because those are the careers in which social advancement is guaranteed. Those are careers which don’t demand professional knowledge. You can report on education even if you’ve never studied those areas in your life. You can lord it over technicians in a factory because you have a business degree, even if you don’t know how to even turn on the machine which the factory workers use. You can work in NGOs and just do NGO speak to please donors – you don’t need to know the technical details of the project you are asking funding for.
In fact, as Issa Shivji reminded us, the donors hope you don’t have the technical knowledge. Or you can join politics and government, and go to China to ask for their engineers to build our roads, since you’ve mismanaged the funds that would pay Kenyan engineers decently, but you need roads to be built for the next election. So why not have China pay its own engineers to build Kenyan roads, and blame the arts for that? And for all your trouble, you get to drive a 4-wheel-drive, earn in dollars and be hired as an MCee, while doctors, nurses and teachers go on strike and technical workers don’t even have permanent employment.
All these contradictions are what are being covered by the “skills gap” propaganda. And the beauty of the propaganda is that now the Ministry of Education has smoothly introduced a new curriculum with “pathways,” and these pathways are actually quotas to push 60% of students to work in low-paying technical careers, rather than go to university. Which is good for private sector, because it won’t have to pay good wages, and the workers will not unionize because they won’t know that it is their right to do so. And parents believe the talk of the skills gap and the new education system, because they think the reforms will guarantee their children jobs. In reality, though, children of “middle-class” will live a poorer life than their parents, because healthcare and education are being privatized, and so future generations will spend more of their income on school fees and hospital bills than their parents paid. And fewer kids will be allowed to go to university.
An attack on education
What government and corporates are calling a “skills gap” is actually an attack on an education itself. The goal is to prevent people from understanding our society and the importance of key social services that are currently being undermined with privatization. The education being attacked is the education that helps us understand that universal healthcare can relieve the pressures of employment, but which politicians are shutting down by running down public hospitals so that private hospitals can make more money. The education being attacked makes cautious to consider the economic value of expensive toys like SGR trains, rather than simply praise them. It makes us not substitute social services with philanthropy. It makes us understand that ethnic diversity in key government appointments is just a minor component of ending ethnicized social inequality.
A little theory is important for every Kenyan to understand what is happening to them, to their jobs, and to their children’s future. And in fact, that understanding is not taught in the education system anyway. What Kenyans erroneously call "arts" or "theory" is actually what Paulo Freire called the banking model of education, where knowledge is literally deposited into students, to be withdrawn during exams. Just like a bank account. And they should know that vocational training does not necessarily eliminate this problem. Youth could still go to technical schools and graduate with certificates and no technical skills. So it is this kind of teaching that needs to be replaced. And that's what proponents of the “skills gap” need to be pointing at; not at the arts.