Monday, October 12, 2015

Act now to restore confidence in our universities

Kenya’s higher education sector is in turmoil. A lot has been a lot written and said about the quality of academic programs and the quality of graduates form our universities, both private and public. Employers and professional associations have been most vocal about the decline in the quality of degree programs and the astounding incompetence of graduates. 

The crisis in higher education is not inexplicable. As the saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost. The quality of students and indeed the performance of the higher education institutions are only as good as what we put in. We reap what we sow.

Lets examine the pipeline. What is happening at every part of the education system? Under the county governments early childhood development and education centres are moribund. No meaningful, age appropriate learning and stimulation happens to the hundreds of thousands of children who attend public ECDE centres across the country.

The precipitous expansion of access under FPE has huge implications on quality of learning. Nearly two out of every three pupils who have completed two years in primary school cannot pass basic numeracy and literacy tests. Moreover, nearly 30 percent of children who complete primary school cannot read or write or do math at the level of a child in grade four. But keep in mind the fact that 30% of Kenyan children are taught math by teachers who score less 40% in a math knowledge assessment. This is a according to a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre

I have looked at KCSE national mean scores in languages, math, science and humanities, i.e., English, Math; Kiswahili, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Geography and History between 2009 and 2013. What I see is both frightening and powerfully revealing. For example, the mean score in English has declined from 39% in 2009 to 27% in 2013. There has been a slight improvement in Math score from 21% in 2009 to 28% in 2013. Between 2009 and 2013, the mean score in science was 28%, 35% and 23% in Biology, Physics and Chemistry respectively. The average score in humanities and Kiswahili was somewhat higher at 42%, 45% and 39% in Geography, History and Kiswahili respectively. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics publishes these statistics in the National Statistical Abstract. 

These statistics are both sobering and instructive. They help in part to explain what in my view is a full-blown crisis in higher education, not only in Kenya but also in the EAC region. According to study commissioned by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) 56% of students graduating from universities in East Africa are unemployable. This study revealed that 51% of Kenyan graduates were half-baked, unsuitable for the job market. 

The point on incompetence was made unequivocally when Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates who lacked mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments supported by sound legal analysis and reasoning. This is hardly surprising if you consider that the mean score in English in 2013 was just 27%.  

Patrick Lumumba, the director of Kenya School of Law admits that quality of university education is below the required standards, and that admission standards are at an all time low to maximize tuition revenue. Moreover, according to Professor Lumumba, universities have proliferated teaching programs to generate additional revenue to finance ballooning operational costs. Furthermore, the pace of expansion of universities had outstripped the rate at which we are training and recruiting the professoriate. The combination is a veritable disaster; atrocious quality of teaching and poor quality students.  

Here are some suggestions that could help restore confidence in our graduates and universities. We must strengthen the quality of teaching and learning across the entire education system, from Cto high school. Universities must be highly selective and only admit students who are well prepared for undergraduate programs. We must reform undergraduate curriculum to encourage experimentation and discovery. Content should not be pursued as an end in it self, but must made relevant through case and problem-based learning approaches.

Last but not least, we must hold universities accountable for value and quality. There must be clear institutional performance goals as well as objective and verifiable data on student and learning achievement across all undergraduate programs. We must act now to redeem our universities.

Monday, October 5, 2015

We owe our children a better future

We are all one great family, connected to one another through bonds of kinship and friendship.
Nothing tests and shakes these bonds like the demise of a close relative or a dear friend. This passed weekend my grandmother was laid to rest.

My grandmother, aka “Min Osea”, was born before World War I. She was a teenager in the great depression and married my grandfather just before World War II erupted. She was in her thirties when a world, bleeding, broken and stung by the holocaust, said never again and founded the United Nations 70 years ago.

My grandmother lived in the century that saw the meteoric surge of human ingenuity through science and technology. She was born when there were hardly any cars on the streets or planes in the skies. In her lifetime we sent a man to moon, conquered space and put time and distance in chains. She was only 14 years old when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and revolutionized medicine.

She lived in the warmest decade since we started taking instrumental records of weather and climate. In her lifetime, a planet is in peril and dangerous climate change now threatens lives and livelihoods for billions. She has lived through the dysfunction and paralysis in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Can COP21 in Paris deliver the breakthrough needed to halt dangerous warming?

My grandmother had lived for half a century when a people were liberated from the colonial yoke. She witnessed the fireworks and jubilation and passion and hope that greeted a former colony’s right to self-determination and Kenya’s independence.

My grandmother like many in her generation was galvanized, entranced by the invigorating unity and love among all Kenyans, tied by the bonds of liberty, aspirations and common purpose. She listened to the soaring oratory and solemn pledge by our founding fathers to eradicate poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and build one nation. A nation was young and a people were hopeful and united.

What has changed in the more than 100 hundred years my grandmother lived, and especially in her last 50 years after this country wrestled freedom from the British? We have made so much progress through the century my grandmother lived. But there is still unfinished business and so much more to do.

After independence, we cut maternal and infant mortality. But today, hundreds of thousands of children still die from preventable diseases. We are still listed among 34 countries with 90 percent of the global burden of malnutrition. Nearly four out ten children born in this land are stunted. Millions of Kenyan children of school going age are out of school. Hundreds of thousands who go through our education system complete school but are barely literate of numerate.

Throughout the century in which my grandmother lived, this country has 21 physicians, 5 pharmacists, and only 3 dentists per 100,000 people. In the village where she lived the local dispensary, outpatient morbidity for children under five years is dominated by malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory infections. In a sense majority of children born in my grandmother’s Homa Bay County have the odds stacked up against them.

My grandmother had imagined that politicians were called to preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens. But more than half a century after independence, our politics is bellicose and primordial. Our politicians have fed many of us the spoilt meat of tribalism. Ethnic division and mistrust have replaced the unity of purpose and the shared aspirations that galvanized my grandmother’s generation at independence.

Deep inside, we all grapple to answer a most basic but non-trivial questions: Who am I and why am here? I am convinced that your answers must be more profound than merely owning a big house, a fancy car and having a well paying job. There must be a higher purpose to our lives; a higher purpose, which connects each one of us with all of humanity, bound together by the desire to perpetuate our kind as responsible stewards of Mother Earth.

The task of building this nation is always work in progress. It is a shared responsibility worthy of our best talents. If my two daughters, Daisy and Disiye, were to live as long as my grandmother what will they see and what difference will we have made? We owe our children a better future.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Achieving the SDGs must be a collective oblgation

Last week the great and the good descended upon Manhattan in a rare show of solidarity for a common purpose. The common purpose is the global aspiration among all nations to achieve equitable prosperity for all mankind, and in our lifetime.

World leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to do two things: advance equitable prosperity and end extreme poverty; and, save the humankind and other forms of life from the peril of dangerous climate change.

The SDGs, unlike their predecessors, were framed on a broad consensus forged by wide grass-roots consultation and inter-governmental negotiations. The SDGs provide a broad platform for citizens, private sector and civil society to partner with government to provide services, create value, and promote accountability and equitable prosperity.

In the SDGs, cities matter because more than 50 percent of kind now lives in cities, and the pace of urbanization in Africa is unprecedented. The SDGs recognize that our patterns of consumption and production are unsustainable and that we must take urgent action to end our addiction to fossil fuels, which is causing dangerous climate change. The SDGs recognize that it is not enough to end poverty. All nations must promote inclusive economic growth and not just employment but decent work for all.

Overall, these goals are novel. These goals are non negotiable. These goals are inextricably bound with the basic human aspirations of wellbeing, justice liberty and equality. Framing the goals was the easy part. Even easier was gathering all the world leaders to pontificate about their endorsement and renewed commitment to deliver on the SDGs. But we all remember this time 15 years ago when world leaders gathered and endorsed the now defunct MDGs. Will this time be different?

Delivering SDGs will take more than pontificating at the UN General Assembly. Delivering the SDGs, especially for the countries in this part of the world, will require political commitment at the highest level. Delivering SDGs will demand re-framing national development priorities, combating corruption and upholding fundamental freedoms and liberties for all citizens. Delivering SDGs will require active, engaged citizens.

Delivering SDGs will require a fundamental shift in business-society relations. We must forge unconventional partnerships, and we must go beyond business as usual.  Business must go beyond corporate social responsibility, public relations and compunction. There must be a robust, compelling business case. I was a CEO I would just call the SDGs business development goals. Every SDG is a business proposition. Think about new investments in clean energy, new portable technology for delivering clean and safe water, new models for delivering education and health services to underserved populations. Think about deploying modern technology that combines satellite applications, cellphones and spectroscopy to deliver real-time agricultural advisory to smallholder farmers. How about a solar panel on the roofs of the billion households in Africa?

The SDGs also provide an opportunity to re-set the relationship between private sector and NGOs. For decades what we have seen is mistrust between these two communities. Private sector often have the money but they are motivated by the financial bottom-line, the shareholder value and hence short-term profit. NGOs especially those working in the developing world, have deep knowledge of the needs of local communities in the growth markets of the future. A new partnership between omnipresent NGOs and business could unlock tremendous value for business, delivering long-term profits for business and achieving sustainable development goals for hundreds of millions of families.

Moreover, delivering SDGs, especially in Africa, will require a new relationship between citizens and their elected leaders. States must be less extractive and more accountable. Power must be more distributed and less concentrated in the hands of the privileged elite, hence more accountable, servant leadership.

Delivering SDGs will require deep structural reform in most governments to encourage policy integration and cross-sectoral coordination. In Kenya, this will be especially complex, requiring political and managerial skills to achieve policy integration on one hand and inter-governmental coordination on the other.

Delivering SDGs will require knowledge institutions, including universities to build and deepen a new culture of, interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary thinking to support formulation, coordination and implementation of integrated policies.

The SDGs are ambitious and onerous but now we own them. Delivering SDGs will demand planetary stewardship and responsible consumption from all of us. We must never forget that we are not proprietors but trustees of mother earth, our common heritage.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Kenya must spend more on education

Starting yesterday about 14 million children will stay at home after the government ordered the closure of all public and private schools. The Ministry of Education has decided to review term dates following three weeks of teachers’ strike that has crippled learning, especially in public schools.

The argument by the government is that we can’t afford to pay teachers the 50-60 percent pay increase, which the government negotiated with the teachers’ unions. The decision to close public and private all schools makes the teachers’ strike a grave and urgent national crisis. It is difficult to guess where the government and the unions will go from here.

At the heart of the “can’t pay won’t pay” stance is the argument that a hefty pay award to teachers would kick the balance between recurrent and development expenditure off-kilter, and stifle economic growth. It is estimated the Kenya spends about 52 percent of all public revenue on salaries. Public finance aficionados consider this unsustainable. Treasury officials also argue that a large pay increase for teachers, who they argue are already better paid than civil servants, would trigger a tsunami of agitations for higher wages across the entire public sector.

The teachers’ strike invites a broader conversation about public education and the future of Kenya’s children in a competitive globalized knowledge economy. Here are some sobering facts about the state of human capital in Kenya: about 2 million children of primary school age are out of school; learning outcomes in public schools are deplorable, with 2 out 3 children in standard 3 unable to pass reading and numeracy test for standard 2; average teacher-pupil ratio in primary school is 1:50; the transition rate into secondary school is about 60 percent, with a net enrollment ratio of about 40 percent; about 87 percent of Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 don’t have post secondary qualifications; and, about 45 percent of students graduating from our universities are unemployable and many of those that are employed, including lawyers, teachers, doctors, civil servants,  politicians and journalists, are mediocre.

These facts worry me sick. Given that more than 65 percent of Kenyans are aged below 25 and the median age is just 19 years we must pause and make hard decisions about the scale of public spending in education. We must re-evaluate our priorities. The future of this country is really about the quality of its citizens – the quality of education, the training and skills of its youth.

To compete in a globalized 21st century knowledge economy, we need a student-centered curriculum, which enables students to think, play, collaborate, co-create knowledge, innovate and solve problems. Hence, we need more and better-trained teachers. We need more schools with better infrastructure. We need more and better learning resources, including technology, in our classrooms. Quality public education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child, not a privilege for the few children whose parents can afford expensive private schools.

About 85 percent of the cost of education is teachers’ salaries. I believe that a well-educated workforce is critical to building equitable prosperity. Every thing we care about as a country; economic prosperity, national cohesion, political stability and democracy are inextricable bound to a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. Hence, spending on education, including teachers’ salaries, must be seen more broadly as spending on development.
Whatever the outcome of the feud between teachers’ unions and the government, we must re-examine our development priorities, and rationalize the structure and function of government at all levels. An unwieldy, outsized government will surely crowd out resources for development, especially education, and devour our future.

How much we spend on education must not be predicated on some arbitrary formulaic percentage or fears of fiscal catastrophe, hinged on economic superstition. How much we spend on educating our children must be based on sound evaluation, which matches our current and projected development needs with the requisite quality of education and skills for our workforce.

What will earn Kenya respect and global competitiveness is not the height of our skyscrapers or the number of lanes on our highways or the width of our railway or how much land we have under irrigation. What will earn us respect is how well we educate our youth for a competitive globalized knowledge economy. The future of this country ­– the youth – must become our most urgent national priority.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Kenya must deal with this epidemic of mediocrity and incmpetence

In March this year the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates. These magistrates were not under investigation for allegations of corruption or professional malpractice. This is unprecedented, especially in a criminal justice environment that is infested with corruption and other vices.

Why were the magistrates fired? The Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board found that the magistrates had no mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments that were based on sound legal analysis and reasoning. This is simply mind-blowing.

According to Senior Counsel Paul Muite, the problem with writing and competent legal reasoning is understated. Law Society chairman Eric Mutua believes that incompetence among judicial officers is at the heart of the problem. According to Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a prominent lawyer, to say that lawyers are half-baked would be a compliment. In his view most lawyers cannot answer the one-plus-one of law.

Mr. Abdullahi argues that the problem of poor writing and the lack of intelligent legal discourse has its origin in law school. According to Mr. Abdullahi our so learned friends are rather incurious and do not read widely after they start professional practice. Personally, I find the shelves in the offices of lawyers and doctors rather barren. But I always assume they keep their books in their home libraries.

Mr. Muite believes that the problem with language competency is not unique to lawyers. In his view it is not uncommon to find a university graduate who is challenged in basic use of English language. I would also add that the problem of professional competence is not unique to the legal profession.

Every one has a physician story; ranging from unnecessary tests to wrong diagnosis and wrong course of treatment or horrible execution of an intrusive procedure. Look around your house or office building; more often than not the quality of construction is appalling. If you own a car you must have a mechanic story. You all must have incompetent teacher and professor stories. There are countless shocking examples of incompetence across a wide range of professional fields.

Think about the quality of leadership in public service, in the private sector and in civil society. Our schools and universities are badly managed. Our political parties are shambolic. The quality of debate in parliament is wanting. Tune into local television and radio stations or follow social media conversation on national issues; the quality of public discourse is abominable.

The high levels of incompetence across a wide range of professions do not bode well for our society. I think the chickens have come home to roost. This is the bounty harvest of years of neglect and underinvestment in public education. The obsession with an exam-centric curriculum, which is driven by rote learning is now coming back to bite us. 

I argue that the levels of incompetence we are seeing among professionals is what you reap from an education system that demands nothing of the playful curiosity of learners and fails to build and nurture critical thinking meaningful learning. An exam-centric system, which privileges mindless regurgitation in high-stakes standardized tests stifles curiosity, kills imagination, trashes analytical reasoning, and pulverizes lifelong learning.

Professional incompetence and mediocrity are creatures of a flawed and antiquated education model. What we have done over the last half century is train incompetent individuals who go off to breed even more incompetent individuals. A study by the African Population and Health Research Centre revealed that 30 percent of Kenyan children are taught math by teachers who can hardly score 40 percent in a math knowledge assessment.

It is therefore hardly surprising that successive reports by the education advocacy organization UWEZO have shown that despite a huge surge in primary school enrollment, our children are not learning. Moreover, study conducted by the Inter University Council of East Africa and in partnership with the East African Business Council revealed that more than 45 percent of our university graduates are not employable.

Kenyans have an insatiable hunger for paper credentials. We are falling over ourselves in colleges taking evening classes for one more certificate or diploma or degree. But these have little bearing on competence or productivity. This epidemic of incompetence undermines our economy, chokes future prosperity. And it must end.

This next round of education reform must ensure that teaching and learning translates into relevant and useable competences, not just qualifications on paper.


Free sudoku by SudokuPuzz