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Is that Masters degree really necessary?

EDUCATION
By Jael Mboga | March 13th 2020

Graduands during the Kabarak University 15th graduation ceremony on December 20, 2019. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard]

Walking in Nairobi streets in the evening or early on the weekends, one will bump into several groups of people.
 
Among them will be students. Some are rushing for evening classes while others are part of a crush weekend experience.
 
Those enrolled in Masters weekend classes could be staring at four three-hour classes with no breaks in between.
 
Others prefer to come to the office on the weekends or on their day off, to complete a project or work on their thesis.
 
The real questions arise during graduation ceremonies, where programmes have hundreds of graduands' names.
 
The question asked is whether the paper speaks louder than the knowledge acquired itself.
 
One wonders if the institutions, especially the public ones, have enough lecturers or supervisors to have guided the students in the right way before according them powers to read.
 
Necessary skillset
 
It all boils down to universities churning out students like a bakery produces bread, and cares little about the skills.
 
Today, many employers insist that they would easily higher a diploma holder over a Masters degree holder for the same position. The question asked is whether the degree holder has the necessary skillset?
 
For instance, in the newsroom, editors have talked about how frustrating it is for a graduate to lack the ability to tell what angle of a story would be best, or have little understanding of what is required in a crispy intro.
 
Such concerns have led more attention to short courses.
 
Journalist Jane Godia is among industry heads who believe in focusing one's energy on a short course that's going to be specific and centred on the student's personal strengths and needs.
 
Godia is a Programme Manager for Women in News East and Central Africa, a media development arm of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). 
 
Her sentiments ring close to a BBC article on whether micro-credentials compete with traditional degrees.
 
While an undergraduate degree takes four years, some short courses may take as little as three months.
 
Changing market
 
The other advantage of short courses, Godia says, is the fact that they fit with the market needs.
 
The ever-changing media world and the migration to digital has given rise to other platforms that traditional degrees did not pay much attention to.
 
Some of the new platforms include podcasts, mobile journalism and social media.
 
While traditional degrees focused on print and broadcast media, there is a need to attain knowledge and skill on what the consumer is taking at the moment.
 
Another advantage of using the micro-credentials is that they are bite-sized chunks of education and are easily available.
 
On average, a Master’s Degree costs about Sh300,000, covering tuition fees and other expenses at a Kenyan public university whereas a PhD could cost slightly over a million shillings.
 
Sometimes, even after parting with so much money in fees, university students will face other challenges that prolong their stay in the institution of higher learning.
 
In September last year, Dr Julius Weche lamented how he had been stuck at Management University of Africa (MUA) unable to graduate after paying Sh550,000 in fees.
 
The 55-year-old founder and CEO of the Akad Education Group-Africa, an organisation that provides career mentorship and leadership training to the youth, enrolled for a PhD in Leadership and Management at MUA in 2015.
 
Weche said he had nothing to show for the early morning classes, late-night group discussions for the four years and all he paid to the university in pursuit of a PhD that was taking long to come.
 
Some of the students were also matched with their supervisors after a year of waiting. To buy time, he says the university started taking students through coursework again, repeating units that had already been taught and examined.
 
“There is a day the University organised a class after we complained that we had been neglected. We attended the 6 am class only to find that we were being taught research methodologies, a unit we had already covered. We had even sat an examination in the unit and passed. It was a very embarrassing situation,” says Weche.
 
Failure to graduate
 
A recent report by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) found that 89 per cent of PhD students enrolled in Kenyan universities fail to graduate.
 
The survey, Research and PhD capacities in Sub-Saharan Africa: Kenya report, shows that only 11 percent of the PhD students enrolled in Kenyan universities complete their studies, meaning that the highest number of students that can graduate in a cohort of 50 PhD students is six.
 
Online courses are, interestingly, free. In some cases, one may need to pay as little as Sh5,000 to get their certificate.
 
Some of the popular sites include Coursera, EdX, Academy Africa or Udacity.
 
With Internet connectivity so wide today, most of the courses can be taken at the comfort of your own home, no need to catch the early bus or spend hours in traffic trying to get to a physical facility.
 
Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy founder Sean Gallagher says there is indeed a gap between "the supply of people in the workforce coming out of university with skills and credentials to fill the gaps employers are looking for”.
 
According to FutureLearn's Simon Nelson, "It’s no longer enough to obtain a degree; having a career now requires people to upskill continuously".
 
A research conducted in 2018 by Gallagher and his colleagues shows that while traditional degrees may not fill some of the educational gaps arising today, it does not take away from the fact that university degrees are significant.
 
“Data shows that college and university degrees are still valued and demanded in the job market. They continue to give their earners economic returns,” says Gallagher.  
 
Many of those hired are applicants who held degrees but further obtained micro-credentials to supplement their core qualification, rather than accumulating certificates.
 
A number of micro-credential providers design their courses in consultation with industry players, making their students better skilled.
 
The micro-credential courses are not to be confused with e-learning courses, where the learning process appears straightforward, but things do not always work as anticipated.
 
At Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat), digital students at the School of Open and Distance Learning are allowed to take the number of units they can handle.
 
Private universities have also cast their nets wide to attract the large number of students opting for e learning.
 
E-learning has been acclaimed for its flexibility, convenience and affordability.
 
Students, however, also shared their journey of solitude, poor correspondence and rigidity of the portals as the ugly side of e-learning.
 
Last September, Kenya Union of Post Primary Education of Teachers (Kuppet) protested a requirement that teachers seeking to become principals and deputy principals must have a masters degree.
 
A masters’ degree in education was among the mandatory requirements, and the TSC portal automatically blocked teachers without postgraduate qualifications.
 
Kuppet Secretary General Akelo Misori, National Chairman Omboko Milemba, National Vice chairman Julius Korir and National Treasurer Mwethi Njenga accused TSC of sneaking in new requirements without involving all stakeholders.
 
The union said a masters degree should be an added advantage for applicants rather than a mandatory requirement.
 
It wrote to the TSC detailing why it believes the new requirement is unnecessary and unrealistic and expressed optimism that the commission would reconsider.
 
Those in the hiring space believe a university degree is valuable, but should not be a requirement, says Career Builder chief people officer Michelle Armer.
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