Covid ups universalisation of education
By XN Iraki | July 11th 2021
Phoenix University was once popular with online classes and had over 100,000 students at its peak. The top-notch universities shied away from such classes.
Perhaps, they reasoned that would dilute their brand. Scarcity makes brands valuable. If we all went to Harvard, there would be little prestige in going there.
That is why admission criteria to elite universities are tortuous and long. Once admitted, you feel the weight and prestige.
Remember that prestige follows you through life. In Kenya, it is the exam that determines your admission to the harrowed institutions - mostly high schools.
Kenya is yet to have a group of elite universities equivalent to the US Ivy League or Chinese C9.
The university law of 2012 postponed elitisation by putting all the universities under the same law. The losers were the old established universities.
It is envisaged that Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) will reduce the role of the exam in admission to prestigious schools and universities by using continuous assessment.
That can be contested. What if schools and universities develop their own admission criteria?
Noted that prestigious universities ask you to sit for exams with acronyms like SAT, ACT, GMAT or GRE? They go beyond exams and add recommendation letters.
Let’s get back to Covid-19 and education. The universities are catching up with what Phoenix tried decades ago. Covid-19, besides disrupting our lives shows how difficult it is to institute change.
Would we have taught online if Covid-19 never came? The pandemic brought other fundamental changes; it made us rethink outsourcing and self-sufficiency. Even the unthinkable telemedicine became a possibility. In times of crisis, even the most unpopular changes get adherents.
Political leaders were the first to take advantage of Covid-19 by amassing more power - across democratic, undemocratic, developed and developing countries. A question we should ask is whether we must go through a crisis to change. Must we have a war or pandemic to change? History seems to suggest so.
Crises such as war or pandemics have spawned lots of innovations as we seek solutions. The threats of war also drive innovations. The threat of a war between the US and the Soviet Union created new innovations, not just in weaponry but other facets of our lives.
The threat of the pandemics left us searching for cures. That is why we got a Covid-19 vaccine so fast.
Countries that have forced changes without a crisis have sprinted ahead. Examples include China, Singapore. Though deeper analysis shows they could have been reacting to past crises or threats of one. Singapore divorced from Malaysia while China has a history of humiliation by the West and Japan. Remember the opium wars and invasion of Manchuria?
Back to education. Online learning is now the norm even in well-established universities like Oxbridge or Ivy League universities. That could have unintended consequences for our universities.
Phoenix was trying to reach a wide market at a lower cost. Will the top university do that same and enhance their revenues?
Think of it. You can now attend a top university in the West or East from home saving money for flight, accommodation and loneliness.
Will this drain the top brains of our universities? Backed by well-known brands, will the top universities now target the global market leaving nothing for small universities? Could renowned universities become the new multinationals? If they can protect their brands, they could expand and benefit from economies of scale. Which student would not pay a premium to enroll there? Could the new multinational universities skim the cream from our countries?
Could university brands become like fashion labels that transcend borders? Noted how some Kenyans like associating themselves with big western universities even when they were there for a short course?
They mute their other alma maters. The top universities have another secret weapon, short courses that might not dilute their brands. These are money minters. They can target a region, a profession or even an age group.
Their reach came out clearly when I saw a short course on Swahili by Harvard University.
The beauty of short courses is that they easily address the issue at hand like Covid-19 or even police use of mobile phones at work.
Let’s be positive. Online learning leaves the market open to universities that can launch courses that appeal to global audiences.
This is our greatest challenge and opportunity. Can we develop courses that can attract Chinese, Indonesians, Nigerians, Peruvians, and Norwegians among others?
Online learning will demand us to upgrade and compete at a global level. Universities that have been actively doing research are reaping the benefits. They have a repository of knowledge they can easily convert into marketable courses; they also understand the market better.
Africa lost in the first globalisation race. We can recover the lost ground by reaching out to the rest of world through online learning. You may think that the world has no interest in Africa but Nobel prizes have been won by researchers who focused on Africa.
Nobel laureates like James Tobin, Joseph Stiglitz, Elinor Ostrom, Richard Samson Odongo, Wangari Maathai, Kremer did their work partly in Kenya.
The work of Ostrom is fascinating. She “showed that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable” and avoided the tragedy of the commons, where public land is overgrazed or deforested because it’s a “common” area.
They did so without State intervention. Part of her work was among the Maasai. But we must work harder. Western scholars have easy access to Africa compared to Africans in the West. How many Kenyans have collected primary research data in the West?
It is time for Africa to tell her story. Online learning and associated technologies give us that opportunity. Winston Churchill told us never to waste a good crisis. Shall Africa waste this one?
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