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Is our chaotic schooling system starting to unravel?

By Makau Mutua | July 24th 2016 at 00:08:01 GMT +0300

It’s true that the state has lost control of high schools. The spate of dorm burnings and the utter lack of order and purpose in our high schools are extremely alarming. I want to suggest that this downward spiral to damnation started in the 1980s. I won’t blame it on the 8-4-4 system because I think that’s a lazy reach. Even so, the 8-4-4 system was ill-thought, and a product of thoughtless planning. To this day, I don’t know what malignancy the bureaucrats were attempting to cure. But I digress. My focus today isn’t on high schools, but on colleges and universities. Simply put, those in charge don’t know whether they are coming, or going. Let’s peel the onion.

Kenya’s educational system was always doomed even when it functioned extremely well. It was elitist and unforgiving. In my day, it was easier to go to university than to pass through the eye of a needle. That’s because the system was designed to guillotine virtually every student leaving but the most gifted standing. It was deliberately created to look like a pyramid. For example, only two of us (myself and another chap) made it to the university from my primary school. All the others — mostly able students — were felled by the wayside. Out of 60, a dozen made it to O Levels, and then a miniscule number to A Levels. This story was repeated in every school in the country.

You can’t appreciate the effect of this sharp machete unless you understand the political economy of social mobility in Kenya. Those from humble beginnings — over 90 per cent of students — didn’t have a way to enter the modern economy unless they excelled in school. School was their way ticket out of squalor and poverty. Most kids in my primary school walked barefooted and owned only one pair of school uniform. But only the brightest — and those who could endure the predations of poverty — would make it out. Luckily, meritocracy for the talented tenth worked in those days. That’s why many children of the poor would make it, and those of the rich would fail to advance in the public school system.

Yes — the system was rigged but at least it gave poor students a chance and a good education. The rich students would go on to private schools and from there to colleges abroad if they couldn’t get into the University of Nairobi. Most ended up in the United Kingdom, United States, and India. In those days, there was only university in Kenya — the University of Nairobi. There was only one law school — the Faculty of Law at the University of Nairobi which would only admit between 50 and 80 students a year. The rest, as they say, be damned. Again, I detested the elitism of the system, but you couldn’t gainsay the quality of education. But today everything has gone to the dogs.

First, the system expanded student in-takes to unsustainable levels. It packed students like sardines in dinky classrooms. It refused to give university teachers a living wage. Recently, a colleague at the University of Nairobi disclosed his pay to my utter bewilderment. His monthly salary can’t sustain a good outing with family in a good restaurant. What sort of society treats teachers — those who create knowledge and tutor prepare our kids for the future — like beggars? It is any wonder that most academics in Kenya have become consultants and guns for hire? Academic freedom means zilch when you can’t afford three meals a day. Frankly, I am shocked that some very renowned scholars are still toiling at our universities.

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Second, the state threw educational standards out the window. Every “village” now has a university. Woe to be unto the politician who can’t bring a university to his kinsmen, or to his county. The problem is that there aren’t qualified teachers for these so-called universities. I was shocked to learn, for example, that Kenya — with a plethora of law schools — has only three full law professors as a country. Most teachers in our law schools aren’t really qualified to teach. This applies to all other disciplines, not just law. Most night schools are the death of a quality education. They are nothing but money collection rackets by colleges. Yet these programmes dish out “degrees” with unbaked “graduates.”

I could go on. But the fact is that our educational system has collapsed from primary school right up to the university. Those with money either take their kids to one of the good private schools — like Strathmore — or send them abroad. But the bright kids who come from poor families — and can’t afford to escape abroad — are stuck chaotic diploma mills we call our public universities. Any charlatan can put up a kiosk and call it a university. God save us.

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