How the price of a degree fell and rose

Diverse International students celebrate during graduation. [Gertty Images]

In the old days, it was easy to establish whether someone was a graduate. A framed photo of the graduate clad in the gown was hung strategically in the living room.

That was a source of pride for the graduate and his family.

The other evidence was the number of witnesses, from parents to relatives and well-wishers who thronged graduation squares to bear witness.

The names were read on live TV broadcasts and escorted by ululations. You could easily identify buses carrying graduates as they were adorned with banana leaves.

Graduation parties followed. I don't recall anyone being accused of faking university graduation.

That was before the large number of graduates made reading every name untenable leading to “mass graduation.”

Covid-19 also shifted graduation online, removing lots of “witnesses.” We are describing the golden age of graduates - they were few, easily got jobs and enjoyed lots of prestige irrespective of what they studied.

Then came the massification of higher education and the laws of supply and demand came into play.

Graduates were produced faster than the market could absorb them. The turning point was double intake for the 1985/1986 “A” level groups. The following year through a presidential directive, the number to be admitted was doubled.

Then came the 8-4-4 system of education which removed one hurdle to university - the A level. To accommodate more students, several middle-level colleges were promoted into universities.

My stand has always been that we should have instead built new universities. The middle-level colleges had their place and role.

By the same token, we should not promote some schools to national school status. We should build new schools.

The new universities offered more courses in social sciences whose jobs are rare. As universities expanded, the formal sector that they were prepared for did not expand. Today, it only employs only about 20 per cent of job seekers.

Ideally, more graduates with their skills should have formalised the informal sectors by expanding the medium and small enterprises into global brands. Or better start new enterprises through innovation.

Today, we no longer have a shortage of graduates. An increase in supply without a commensurate increase in demand leads to a fall in price.

For graduates, the “price” fall is less prestige attached to the degree and salaries or perks that go with that certificate. The price can be zero with unemployment or negative if you are still a dependent. It now matters what you study and soon where you study it.

Why then would some of our politicians “import” their degree certificates from neighbouring countries when their value has gone down? Why not from Oxbridge or Ivy League universities? Why in the 21st century should we be asking if someone got a degree or not? Seriously?

Since most people graduated before Covid-19, why not share graduation photos with classmates, relatives or well-wishers? Which graduate has no such photos?

By demanding degree certificates for governors and a few other posts, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) raised the price of the certificate.

We rarely fake low-value items. Which cloth labels are faked most? Which alcoholic brands are most faked?

But why is Uganda mentioned too often when degrees for our leaders are questionable? Why not other neighbouring countries? Or why not a degree from Makerere, Uganda’s most prestigious University? Do you really need to crack your head over these questions?

More curiously is why few Kenyans are not furious over allegations of academic fraud the same way we do over corruption cases. Why are party leaders not asking those who allegedly forged degree certificates to step down? The quick answer is that the cases are in court. What if hoi polloi are accused of forging certificates?

As an academic, the debate on degree authenticity is disturbing. What message are we passing to students? Why does education get the biggest share of the national budget if we can tolerate shortcuts?

One media report attributed to the Kenya National Qualifications Authority (KNQA) stated that about 30 per cent of certificates in Kenya are forged.

Why are we complaining about slow economic growth? Wrong people get jobs, some critical to economic growth. They have no incentive to innovate or go beyond the call of duty. One consequence of employing the wrong people is that it discourages the pursuit of excellence.

One teacher told me students nowadays want to pass and not excel. Think of bright kids being denied jobs because someone forged a certificate and is “protected.” Yet the greatest national resource is not oil but brains.

Do you recall Americans taking German scientists home after the second world war (WWII)?

The spirit of demanding a degree certificate from governors and other top leaders is based on the premise that a degree makes you a better leader, that you can analyse issues better and give better solutions.

The perks that go with the elective posts from governors to presidents are too lucrative. The end justifies the means. Why can’t we weed out those with forged documents? Can the new forensic lab take that as its first assignment? It seems if we insisted on verifying all certificates our leaders claim to hold, we shall open a can of worms.

If someone can’t be trusted with getting a degree? How can we trust him with bigger national issues? And why are more men than women caught with academic forgeries? Does it mean women are doing their work and graduating?

We could argue that what matters at the end of the day is if the leaders will make a difference to the society, degree or not. But there is enough evidence that a good education can make a difference in our thinking and reasoning capacity.

In politics where issues are unstructured, we need lots of brains. Ever wondered why top leaders in both the public and private sectors in the UK or US are graduates of Ivy League universities or Oxbridge?

If we can’t enforce a degree rule for our leaders, we should leave it and let the market do its work. Period.

By the way, why are degree certificates not replaceable when title deeds can be replaced? And why is a tax compliance certificate not demanded from our future leaders?