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Why Kenya has plenty of 'useless' varsity degrees

By Elias Mokua | December 30th 2020 at 01:00:00 GMT +0300

Dedan University graduands at a past graduation ceremony. [File, Standard]

The Commission for University Education (CUE) produced a very well done document titled 'University Statistics 2016/2017'. Depending on what you want out of the document, one gets many insights on the performance of universities, student career choices and specialisation, staffing in both public and private universities, and major challenges and opportunities for future academic development.

In addition to my interest in higher education policy, I read this document alongside available data on the Internet on the so-called 'useless' degrees with a view to guiding students searching for 'useful degrees'.

According to the document, “a general concern in the university sector in Kenya is the imbalance between humanities, arts and social sciences, on the one hand, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics on the other”. As a result, “the consequent shortage of needed knowledge and skills in areas such as manufacturing, housing, health, food security, biotechnology and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is obvious and cannot be gainsaid.” The document adds: “Despite the fact that the country has in the last five years invested heavily in key sectors such as energy and infrastructure, university programmes and curricula stand faulted for not addressing the main sectors and pillars of national development.”

For my mentorship task, it has been hard for me to pick out the useless degrees that students should avoid, or the useful ones that they should embrace. Statistics, however, show that most students go for the humanities, arts and social sciences. Many reasons account for this. Top on the mind of any young Kenyan is the question: “Will I get a job with this degree?” Well, much younger students talk about 'my passion', which they later realise does not add much value.

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Kisii University students celebrate during their graduation ceremony. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Most students who use this as the main criterion to choose a career pathway regret the academic programme. There is more than just passion, however relevant this is to personal potential. Very few students pull it through to successful careers based on their passion.

So, advising a student to go for STEM programmes where clearly a small percentage of students opt is not a cutout alternative. As the commission notes, there are significant challenges in this area including only a few universities offering STEM programmes such as engineering compared to nearly all public and private universities offering programmes in humanities, arts and social sciences.

STEM programmes are capital intensive and require highly specialised teaching. Sadly, right from primary to secondary schools, natural sciences are considerably poorly taught leading to low uptake of STEM programmes.

Looking at the other end — the job market — there is a great disconnect between the industry and academic output. Graduates are many and ill-prepared for the few jobs available. There is a mismatch between available degrees and available jobs, hence the 'useless (redundant) degrees'. This means given the right conditions, the redundant degrees could be very useful.

So my indicative (rather than scientific) comparative analysis between useless degrees in most developed countries and Kenya shows that unless a student is really talented, taking engineering, mathematics and agriculture for any purpose other than teaching will be unproductive in the job market. We are just not prepared to be locally and globally competitive by using knowledge in these fields.

Performing arts

Taking degree programmes in philosophy, literature, languages or performing arts is great. No doubt such degrees help a society to reflect on itself and generate systems of governance that improve the quality of life. However, the bad news is that these are redundant degrees whose market need is negligible. Take performing arts, for example; many artistes are born rather than made.

Legendary Kenyan singer Susan Owiyo. [File, Emmanuel Mwendwa, Standard]

Two major factors that render many programmes in our universities redundant are first, the disparity between career pathways that generate high income and 'degreed professionals' who are revered but earn very low income. Secondly, while placement of people in offices that match their academic knowledge is good in reality, there is considerable abuse of meritocracy and demeaning of individual God-given talents.

Good news! Two study areas that seem all green are health sciences and ICT although the latter has low uptake, going by the CUE stats. Any study area touching on innovation is worth venturing into. As the CUE document clearly indicates, there is need for depth in quality and standards in universities.

 

Dr Mokua is executive director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communications


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