Why 1,269 is a significant number in Kenya

Shot of two graduates embracing each other on graduation day. [File, Standard]
The best news from university admissions for the 2018 KCSE candidates was not the number admitted, nor was it the new CS or the career choices of the star students. It was that some 1,269 candidates opted to join diploma programmes to study technical courses.

I would love to talk to this group of students. This would never have happened in the past when all students wanted to get into university irrespective of what they would study.

Apart from prestige associated with getting a degree, there were other incentives to go to the university. That included financial, like the famous ‘boom’ and job availability. I used my boom to buy a cow.

Starting around early 1990s, there was a fundamental rethinking driven by the World Bank. The economic argument was that basic education from primary school to high school had higher returns to the society than higher education. That led to a shift in resources to lower levels.

University education was seen more of a luxury to be paid for. That is why boom ended and university fees were introduced. Could that be the reason we want 100 per cent transition to high school, but we are mute on 100 per cent transition to university?

Shifting resources away from higher education did kill appetite for higher education, for degrees. Education is still seen as the conveyor belt for upward mobility. In every village and hamlet, there were enough role models who had transformed their lives by going to the university. They still inspire the next generation.

Joblessness was supposed to reduce demand for higher education but instead it increased the attraction with youngest people believing that more education would act as a hedge against unemployment. That is how postgraduate classes got full.

Growth in postgraduate enrollment has been one of the silent features of higher education in Kenya. It is seen as a hedge against joblessness and prestige erosion. Since everyone has an undergraduate degree, why not go for masters and later PhD? It is all about getting out of the crowd.

Lots of postgraduate students are after prestige, self-actualisation and, as one student told me jokingly, improving their obituary. Universities could also be compensating for the decrease in undergraduate numbers by encouraging higher postgraduate enrollment.

Education inflation

The rising postgraduate enrollment has given rise to education inflation; you need higher qualifications for the same job that used to be done by someone with lower qualifications. And why not, there are enough people with such qualifications.

With IT, jobs have become more automated and less taxing. Why would they need higher qualifications? Why would a bank recruit “graduate clerks“? While some might argue starting that low will ensure the clerks understand the banking system as they go up the ladder, it is under unemployment of one’s skills.

Another emerging trend in jobs is demanding a ‘combo’ of qualifications. A degree, a professional certification such as CPA and CFA, and work experience. That has made our education very expensive. The rising monopoly of professional bodies, which demand licence for you to practice and is backed by law, has made schooling even more expensive.

That is why the 1,269 students skipping the degree might be ahead of their time. They indicate that the market is shifting. Did they realise that they will end up spending less money and time in school and start earning earlier?

That is very typical in USA and continental Europe, with well-functioning technical and vocational education that includes the age-old but effective apprenticeship.

When everyone is going up, the 1269 went down to less prestigious qualification. It is more like the Equity Bank model; when all the banks were after the few rich, they went after the many poor.

We should give credit where it is due. The availability of HELB loans to technical and vocational institutions (Tivet) must also have played a role in shifting the tide against degree programmes. The 1,269 might have graduate brothers and sisters who might not be smiling financially.

The number shows that the higher education market could be getting more efficient. Students and their parents can see through the fog of prestige associated with degrees. There is more information available online and from peers on what degrees are all about and where they lead you.

Have you noted how some degree programmes’ popularity seems to rise and wane like fashion as information about their job prospects become available? This is leading to shunning of some courses. They are new and unknown by the market.

Even the naming of the degree programmes can put off prospective students. Examples include BA in Front Office Management or Theology with IT.  Baffled by unfamiliarity, students prefer old, established universities. Their degree programmes and alumni are well known.

On the wane

Could the 1,269 students joining Tivet show that elitism in higher education is on the wane? Are students descending from the ivory tower finally?  Parents and their children have slowly realised that there might be more prestige in a dirty job than joblessness in a clean profession.

Kenya has become a more economically oriented country. Our lives are more influenced by economic events than any other force. Noted how traffic jams disappear in the middle of the month? Young men have learnt that quickly. They can now invest in skills that will guarantee them jobs or self-employment.

While parents and their children have shifted to the dictates of the market, the Government - read regulator - has been left behind. How did the courses rejected by the students or the market get there in the first place?  Was there a market survey?

The existence of unpopular degree programmes is easy to explain. It is supply driven. University lecturers and professors often want to teach what they know, not necessarily what the market wants. Having invested years in an area of study, almost like a cult, it becomes hard to let go.

Students graduating from high school have very little information about the job market and skills needed. Without a regulator, universities will mount any course as long as the student can pay and pass with least effort. No university will tell you that the course you are taking will not get you a job.

And now some data to wake you up. Only 28.65 per cent of the 660,204 who sat for KCSE in 2018 got places in the university or technical and vocational institutions. Only 13.75 per cent will go to the university.

What will happen to the rest, the vast majority? Should we worry about the 28.65 per cent or 71.35 per cent?

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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2018 KCSE candidates1269 candidatesGovernmentUniversity selection