Why debate on useless degrees is worthless

Last week tension ran high in Kenyan universities when print media carried headlines on ‘useless degrees’, predicting how more than 10,000 students enrolled in the said ‘useless’ programmes risked forfeiture of their places. In the mumbo jumbo of accusations and counter accusations, no one interrogated the source of the term ‘useless degrees’.

However, in the public court, the culprit appeared to be the Commission for University Education. When on February 20, 2019  CUE sought to clarify the issue, newspapers were at it again: ‘CUE beats hasty retreat’.

Assuming the dust has settled, it is time to put the matter into proper perspective. First, no branch of knowledge is ‘useless’; they are important and complementary. Ideally, schools should never divide knowledge into subjects. Knowledge about the world should be taught in an integrated way to enable learners fit into the world. Indeed, indigenous education was about preparation for the real world.

However, that world was limited to a small village, human interactions kept to minimum radii. All a boy growing up in Turkana had to know about was cattle herding, cattle diseases and, perhaps, the herbs to remedy the ailment. But in 2019, a Turkana child may learn about petroleum engineering, a branch of knowledge separated from the similar chemical engineering. Until recently, no one taught energy studies.

All that we needed to know was covered in Chemical and Electrical engineering. But as knowledge explodes, there is need to train specialists in ever smaller specialties. Training in medicine and dentistry is getting even more specialised: you no longer have your general practitioner who will treat everything and extract all your teeth at their pleasure.

The Bachelor of History degree featured prominently as an example of a useless degree. Is knowledge of history useless? History is the study of our story of development as human beings. We learn history to understand the present. When we understand the past we learn to avoid mistakes we may have made in the past. Barack Obama was an astute student of history. Donald Trump despises history and anthropology to the point that he does not appreciate that his own wife is a recent migrant to the United States of America.

Similar examples among leaders of other countries are legion. History, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Philosophy, Literature are important subjects for those who want to understand and explain what motivates human beings to do the things that they do.

These courses should be compulsory learning for politicians and journalists because, more than other occupations, politicians and journalists deal with the public and they must always get their act right.  Is it credible that CUE would dismiss history or any other subject as ‘useless’ when staff at the Commission come from all sorts of backgrounds? Among CUE staff whose degree should be rated better than the other when all complement one another in the work they do? CUE needs environmentalists, engineers, information specialists, historians, accountants, lawyers, doctors, name them.

Quality assurance

In the discharge of its mandate, CUE works with universities to set up quality standards which can transform our society. In the free market environment world education finds itself in, regulation is necessary. The regulation role falls onto COE. What are erroneously called CUE Standards on infrastructure, teaching/learning facilities, staff qualifications, learner entry behaviour and course duration are actually Universities’ standards.

The quality assurance movement is not just a Kenyan affair. It is worldwide, emanating from the European quality assurance movement after the Bologna meeting decades ago. While in the past no one cared about quality assurance in higher education, following the proliferation of universities, there is need to regulate university teaching and learning.

Until CUE cracked the whip some universities operated in dingy rooms above bars, enrolled unqualified candidates who took two years to get a degree, first degree holders taught undergraduates, and topics had become courses and courses became programmes. The list of ‘useless degrees’ which appeared in the press should be seen in the context of what CUE was seeking to do for quality assurance. CUE works to assure the public that what their children learn at universities is value for money.

Academic programmes

In July 2018 CUE wrote to universities seeking information about qualified teaching staff available, rooms and laboratories, computers and other equipment required for teaching.  To avoid the tendency of universities presenting topics as courses and courses as programmes, CUE also seeks to validate academic programmes. Programmes which fail the accreditation test are removed from the list of programmes offered and the public is accordingly informed.

The list of programmes given by media last week were not therefore ‘useless degrees’ but programmes in specific universities which may not have met the test on content, staffing and teaching facilities. With that information CUE advises Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS) on the optimum capacity of each programme within different university. KUCCPS then declares capacity for admission in the programmes at specific universities.

Prof Ongeti is a Curriculum and Learning Design Specialist, Deputy Director, Quality Assurance, Moi University