Thursday, May 28, 2015

Our universities must change to meet the needs of society

Hundreds of thousdands of young men and women graduate from our universities every year with a bachelor’s degree. To have made it this far in the education system, these young men are women are clearly the fittest of their peers. And they are the pride of their families, who also have great expectations of them.

However, these young men and women are often not so lucky. A vast majority of them end up, just like their friends who did not graduate from college, trying without much luck to find their place in the economy. Finding a job is even harder because according to a study conducted by the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) in collaboration with East Africa Business Council (EABC) about 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market.

It would seem that this is not the right time to graduate from university. Many in our society now wonder if a university degree is even worth the paper it is printed on. Many recent graduate drift off and are underemployed, performing low-level tasks, which do not require a university degree. So is a bachelor’s degree worthless?  Absolutely not!           
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
I suggest that given the levels of unemployment among recent graduates, there is a wide and unconscionable gap between the skills the work place demands and the calibre of graduates we are churning out. Or are we expecting too much out of a bachelor’s degree? It seems to me that we demand both skills training and an academic specialization to be accomplished in three or four yearundergrauate program.

But university eduacation does not come cheap. A vast majority of parents across the EAC region spend a considerable proportion of their income and assets to send a daughter or a son to univeristy. Moreover, with meagre allowances, which is what students have, life is pretty tough on campus for undergraduates.
Universities must therefore be held accountable for quality or value for money, given the huge amount of tax payer dollars and family resources that go into educating our children. Why should unieverities continue to exist even when more than half of the the graduates they produce lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market?

Consider this, if a commercial airline company said to you that that their flight safety record was 40 percent or that their fatal crash record was 60 percent would you or your family fly with the airline? Or would the aviation authorities allow them to keep their license? It pretty simple. No one would need to fly with this airline because they would be out of business and have a battery of lawsuits against them and victims to compensate.

I have said here before that 19th century model model of higher education we are promoting today is outdated and out of sync with 21st century needs of both the student and the economy. Our university education model sets up a majority of our students to fail. How we teach, along  neat disciplinary fault lines, with an inordinate empahsis facts and content does not promote meaningful learning.

Our undergraduates have to read huge amounts of material memorise and regurgutate mountains of facts to pass exams. We demand nothing of their critical thinking or analytical or research or synthesis skills. And it gets worse in this day and age when there is too much information. Its no wonder that students often copy, plagiarise, huge amounts of undigested mnaterial from internet sources and paste on to their essays.

What is the future of university education in East Africa? I think it is pretty dreadful. The challenge of poor funding is understandable but not sufficient as an excuse for such deplorable quality. Our universities must change to meet the needs of our society.

Here are some questions to consider. Do we still need to invest scarce resources on content heavy curricular, which is delivered by a professor? What do students want to learn and how do they want to learn? What relationship can we build with potential employers to graduate work ready students? How can technology improve the qulity of learning while keeping the cost of highe reudcation low?


I don't have answers. But we change we must. Business as usual is not an option and universities must not be allowed to be self serving.

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