I eventually decided that I better find out what arts and humanities departments outside Kenya are doing. I found out that they were fighting the same battles as us, and that they had named the monster they were fighting. It was called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the idea that the society works best if every social relationship is treated as an economic transaction. Teachers now don’t teach students; they serve clients.
So it is in the interests of the government and private sector to keep calling lecturers unqualified and the arts useless, and to keep saying that university degrees are irrelevant to the job market. And media can only earn advertising revenue from using useless degrees and poor quality education as the only narrative to talk about education. And now useless education has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for students. No matter what we tell students these days in class, they don’t believe that we lecturers know anything about the market, so they don’t learn, and when they get to the market, the employers confirm that students have not learned, and it’s the lecturers’ fault.
No matter what we lecturers do, we have lost in the court of public opinion.
Who said university education is for jobs?
But even as universities try so hard to get some respect, we all know that training for immediate jobs is about the most short-sighted goal of education. Degrees are academic qualifications for an education that improves the human experience through a raised consciousness, broad knowledge and mastery of skill.
How degrees got tied to jobs, especially in Kenya, is anyone's guess, since colonialists never intended for Africans to get an arts education, let alone a university one. Starting from the 1900s, colonialists wanted Africans to get only the education that would give Africans skills to work on settler farms. The colonial government wanted Africans to get education to help the few British civil servants available to run the colonial government. The missionaries wanted Africans to be able to read the bible.
So none of the schools started for Africans wanted education for the African human being. The colonialists wanted education for specific outputs. The colonialists even said that the lesson of India was that technical education would prevent a revolt by the colonized, because Indians supposedly revolted against colonialism because they got a literary education.
Of course, that thinking was based on the racist assumption that African cultures were inadequate in making Africans aware of oppression. Yet most of the Africans who revolted against colonialism had never attended a European school.
So colonialists clearly knew that a liberal arts and higher education were for goals higher than the market, that is for empowering citizens. They therefore intended to keep Africans away from university education.
The same goes for W E B Dubois, who argued that Booker T. Washington’s ideas of technical skills-only education would not help uplift black people. Higher education, Dubois argued, was for helping African Americans become equal citizens.
Even next door in Tanzania, Nyerere vehemently argued that education was for liberation, and that graduates who gave themselves a market value based on their education were nothing but slaves.
So should university education, in Kenya be directly linked to the market and especially employment?
Private sector and universities: A cruel marriage
I think that the amount of energy universities spend on making private sector happy is not paying dividends. Universities have bent over backwards to please private sector. They have changed their corporate cultures. They have renamed their degrees. These days, universities spend time on visits, signing MOUs and doing CSR and internships with the private sector, and yet the private sector is never satisfied.
Perhaps it’s time for universities to stop trying.
And the benefits will actually be enormous for both society and education.
Divorcing universities from the job market would be a step towards ending education-based discrimination, where people automatically gain advantage in the work place based on their certificates. In a society like ours, where education opportunities are very unequal, education is becoming a decisive factor in entrenching inequality, especially when the myth of meritocracy is added to it.
Rather than use university qualifications to select employees, employers would select their employees, test them, and then train employees themselves. After all, private sector repeatedly says our graduates are not good enough. If the applicants for a position are too many, the employer could use a lottery to pick their trainees. The system would even serve the employees better, because employers would try very hard to keep employees they have invested in training by improving their working conditions.
Likewise, salary and promotion based on degrees should end. Let people be paid on their experience, insight and output.
Since degrees are academic qualifications, they should remain just that, academic qualifications for people who want to teach, or who just love knowledge. All other sectors should develop their own tests and categories for qualifications, independent of universities. That would also release people to attend university for their own knowledge and satisfaction, not to acquire a rubber stamp to please somebody else. Students would attend universities out of passion for knowledge, not out of desperation for papers to gain employment.
And then public university education should be made free and universal, since it is a public service, rather than a route to getting jobs.
Such changes would reduce academic cheating, increase lecturers' passion for research and sharing knowledge, and reduce students’ craze for certificates at the expense of learning. And then universities can teach what is not only useful but also enjoyable, and our curriculum can be flexible to students. With no pressure on universities to guarantee jobs, universities can then concentrate on research and on simply spreading knowledge.
We need to know that no matter how much sovereignty universities give up, private sector will be forever dissatisfied and will keep asking for a bigger pound of education's flesh. Private sector has become spoiled; it abuses society, destroys the economy, pollutes the environment and degrades social services like health and education. To borrow David Ndii's metaphor, education has been in an abusive relationship with industry since colonial times. It’s time we the Kenyan people talk divorce.