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Monday, August 25, 2014

East Africa’s underachieving universities signal the need for urgent and deep reform

East Africa has made a huge bet on university education as a path to opportunity and prosperity. East Africa could have the most educated population of any region in Africa. Moreover, gross enrollment ratio (GER) for university in East Africa has risen from an average of 0.3 in 1970 to about 3.6 in 2010. But the best educated? The answer is an unequivocal, absolutely not.

Key stakeholders, especially private sector employers and CEOs have said that our universities do not meet their needs and those of the larger society.  For example, a recent study conducted by the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) in collaboration with East Africa Business Council (EABC) revealed that about 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market. Similarly, in report, Africa Business Agenda, published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 2012 all 201 CEOs were unanimous on one fundamental point; that university graduates can pass exams but they cannot think for themselves. According to the CEOs interviewed two of the most difficult groups of employees to recruit and retain are middle and senior managers.

This is unacceptable and indefensible; for taxpayers and families who spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on higher education. The moment is right for a renaissance in undergraduate education in East Africa. And it will take audacious reform led by governments a change in mindset by ultraorthodox university professors and private university leaders who have the courage to innovate.

Four imperatives for reform
The reform that is solely needed in health-care, primary and secondary school education and the civil service all across the East African Community (EAC) member states must now reach undergraduate education in both public and private universities. Four imperatives underpin the need for reform.

First, the world we live in today, unlike the world of our forebears, is intensely connected, more crowded, evidently warmer and beset with a worrying scarcity of vital life support resources such as clean air, fertile soils, food and clean water. Moreover, in Africa and especially in our region East Africa, the centrifugal, fragmenting effects of ethnicity, radicalism, religious extremism and blind nationalism now threatens pluralism and social cohesion, undermines governance and stability both locally and globally.

Second, the challenges and opportunities that East Africa faces today – the youth bulge, weak educational systems, rapid but unplanned urbanization, inequality, biodiversity decline, extractive sector boom, and food security – demand that our decisions and actions must be driven by evidence, knowledge, information and innovation. In a dynamic and complex world, relevant education and knowledge are increasingly becoming the foundation for, and drivers of economic, social and institutional growth. It is recognized now, more than ever before, that universities influence economic competitiveness of individual nations and regions.

Third, this is an extraordinary moment for East Africa. While the region is beset with challenges it is home to four out ten most rapidly growing markets in Africa. Although we constrained by divergent political and circumstances, our destiny is singular. Our place in the continent and in a globalized knowledge economy will be determined by how we educate the current and future generations. We need to educate our own scientists to create Africa’s unique green revolution. East Africa needs engineers, biologists, ecologists, sociologists, anthropologists and economists to deal with the impacts of climate change. We need politicians, journalists and civil servants who can navigate the complex but essential diversity of our region.

Lastly, to harness what is evidently Africa’s unique moment, our universities must prepare captains of business, leaders of government, stewards of civil society and community who will lead Africa’s renaissance and find solutions to Africa’s most urgent challenges; governance, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, civil strife climate change and environmental degradation. Upon graduating, students should be functional and create change personally, socially, economically and politically in their community, in their country, in East Africa and in the world. 

Re-defining the purpose of undergraduate education
A fundamental first step in reforming undergraduate education is to define what purpose undergraduate education must serve in what is increasingly a post knowledge economy. Undergraduate education aught to prepare students for an unknown future; build a capacity for, curiosity, critical thinking and imagination. Undergraduate education aught to produce scientifically and culturally literate people who can assess evidence, connect the dots and communicate with clarity. In a dynamic and fast changing globalized world, such capacities prepare young people for job and careers that do not yet exist.

Consider that about two hundred thousand East Africans who will enter university this year will be retiring in 2060. We have no idea of what the world will look in a couple of years, much less 46 years, yet our universities are charged with preparing these young citizens for life in that world. Undergraduate education must recognize the imperative for developing knowledge skills and attitudes to meet the extant problems and emerging and currently unknown problems.

Moreover, undergraduate education must aim to address the whole person and not be constrained by the need to produce work ready graduates. An excessively instrumental model of the undergraduate experience devalues the ingenuity of its capacity. It undermines and constricts the safe space of patient contemplation, quite reflection, and unbridled imagination, which the university curves out. Moreover, an overbearing expectation on the university to create the so-called practical solution bearing work ready graduates could diminish its inquisitorial role in a world hurrying to fix its most urgent problems. We need a balance between both.

Re-designing the undergraduate curriculum
How should we prepare the next generation of leaders and problem solvers? How and what should we teach? Fundamentally, reform must begin with the institutional model of the university and how the undergraduate experience is organized. The entire infrastructure and apparatus of honor or hubris around the university is predicated on disciplinary knowledge or deep specialization by gaining a PhD. This then creates kingdoms or jurisdictions called departments. The process of obtaining a PhD is through learning more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.

These academic kingdoms present one of the most critical barriers to knowledge integration and learning effectiveness among undergraduates. This time honored university tradition is antithetical project and problem based approaches to teaching and learning. It undermines an orientation to problem solving, interdisciplinary collaboration and teamwork, especially where notions of power asymmetry in epistemology are entertained.

The absurdity of hard and fast disciplinary lines is that problems of the real world do not present neatly as biology or religion or history or economics. What is required then is a capacity among undergraduates to transcend these arbitrary distractions and acquire the tools and a capacity for intellectual catholicity and an orientation critical thinking, analytical reasoning and problem solving through integrating multiple literacy and intelligence. To achieve this, we must re-organize how we design and deliver, pedagogically, undergraduate classes. Faculty must unlearn the bad ways of disciplinary hubris and embrace team teaching and walk the talk on interdisciplinary approaches to research, teaching and learning.

The curriculum must be liberated from the tyranny of the course book and the content. Teaching and learning must be thematic, driven by experimentation, discovery and problem-based approaches. Content must not be taught as an end to itself but be integrated through problem or case based learning. Through such an approach knowledge is delivered not as disembodied facts and figures originated by the oracle – a professor– but is constructed and co-created through experimentation and research. Thus the curriculum and the pedagogy must be designed to challenge students and build higher order thinking skills.

And more importantly, assessment must depart from privileging regurgitation of content acquired through rote learning to a demonstration of understanding through application of knowledge and service learning. Service learning engages students in three ways: classroom instruction through explanation and analysis of theory; community service that emerges from and informs the classroom context; and structured reflection tying service experience back to specific learning objectives. As the Chinese proverb goes, “tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.” Learning is not a spectator sport. Meaningful learning is active and constructivist.

Decline in undergraduate teaching
The quality of undergraduate teaching in our universities is deplorable. In my view I think there is a moral failure among our academics. The hubris among the professoriate is simply revolting. Faculty has too much power and they pay too much attention to their research and private consulting and too little attention to undergraduates and advising and mentoring. The implication is that the problem, in a large part, could be located in ethics and values of our academics. But is the problem entirely located in the moral values of the professoriate or are there fundamental economic and market forces at play here? You decide.

All across our universities, there is no pressure to improve undergraduate learning. The general neglect of the fundamental purpose of undergraduate education could explain why faculty has no clue on research on student learning and exhibit no interest in issues of pedagogy. Most university professors, especially the really bad teachers, regard teaching as too simple to require formal preparation. Most graduate students who become professors have learned to teach by emulating their professors, and believe me, most of them are pretty bad teachers.

There is also a disconcerting reluctance among senior academic leaders, deans and vice chancellors, to commit to a systematic and sustained effort to improve the quality of undergraduate education. Our universities have no appetite for learning through a continuous process of improvement by internal or external evaluation of their performance.

Holding Universities Accountable
We must hold universities accountable for cost, value and quality. Without resorting to externally imposed accountability systems universities should be encouraged to develop specific and clear goals for student learning and to collect objective, and verifiable data about how students are achieving their learning goals, across all undergraduate programs. Ideally, the results of such self-assessment should be made available to prospective students and their parents.

But as people who pay taxes and tuition we can ask for more. Universities through high quality and teaching and research can increase the creation of well-paying jobs in the economy by expanding research enterprise while linking academic programs to entrepreneurship and business development. The influence of higher education must be felt beyond the lecture theatres. The beneficent influence of the university must be felt in homes and businesses, our streets and parliaments, our farms and parks.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that undergraduate education is about preparing young people for a lifetime and for an unknown future. It is about preparation for citizenship. It is about preparation for a global society. East Africa’s great inventors, business and civic leaders must emerge from our own universities, ready with open minds to lead forth. I believe that if we continue business as usual, pay lip service to quality, the East African moment will be lost. We will rise or fall by the quality of our undergraduate programs. No length or railway lines or roads or power lines or size of harbors or airports can be a substitute for underachieving undergraduate programs. 

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