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Climb down from altar of university degree

By By Dominic Odipo | July 2nd 2012

By Dominic Odipo

Should the Kenyan Parliament represent and be able to speak for all the people of Kenya or for only those among them who have gone through university and somehow managed to pass the final university examinations?

If only those who hold university degrees are allowed to sit in Parliament, who will speak for and represent the views of the more than 37 million Kenyans who do not hold university degrees?

Who should have the final say in deciding who should represent the ordinary Kenyan in Parliament? Should it be the ordinary Kenyan voter in each constituency, the anonymous lecturers at our universities who mark the university examination scripts or Kenya National Examinations Council?

Piece of paper

But what is a university degree anyway? Is it a pass degree which one gets by scoring an average of only 40 per cent at the final university examinations or is it a first class degree which one gets by scoring upwards of 70 per cent in those examinations? And if we demand any university degree this year, shall we be demanding a first class degree come 2017?

What about the quality and academic standing of the universities themselves? Is a first class degree from Harvard University in the United States equivalent to a first class degree from some college in the Indian state of Kerala?

A university degree is not anything which anyone can specifically quantify or gauge like height or weight.

This is one of the basic lessons that those who hold these university degrees quickly come to appreciate. It is merely a piece of paper which, these days, one can acquire in all sorts of ways and which, confronted with certain leadership or moral problems, can amount to absolutely nothing.

How does a university degree in the mating and reproductive habits of the anopheles mosquito help an MP who is trying to reconcile the Gabra and Borana communities in Marsabit County?

How does a doctorate degree in the life and times of the tilapia of Lake Victoria help you as a legislator when your immediate task is ensuring that the maize farmers within the Bura and Hola settlement schemes get immediate payment for their produce?

Let us, by all means, glorify the university degree even if we cannot all agree on exactly what it is, but let us not attempt to crucify millions of our own innocent compatriots on the cross of that degree.

In a true democracy, such as the one we are trying to build in this country, the voices of all sections of our society need to be heard in our national parliament.

Those voices need to be heard even if only in their silence.

In our national Parliament, we need to have the representatives of the rich and the poor; the men and the women; the young and the old; the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and even atheists; the able and the disabled; the degree holders and those who don’t hold university degrees.

If any of the laws that any of our legislative organs pass expressly exclude any of these special groups, then that law must be determined as unconstitutional.

There is, also, another important reason why non-degree holders must not be excluded from vying for elective posts at the national and county levels. Under our system of government, the final arbiter of who shall sit in our local or national assemblies is the ordinary Kenyan voter, a category, which includes all those who ultimately become our members of Parliament.

Under that same system, we have decided to give every man and woman one vote. It does not matter whether that person is a goatherd, an illiterate labourer or a professor of trigonometry.

By giving every man and woman one vote, whether or not she or he holds a university degree, we have inherently accepted the principle that, with regard to the ultimate democratic right — that of one man, one vote — holding a university degree is irrelevant in such fundamental matters of national governance.

If we thought that university degrees, of any quality or provenance, were so vitally important for enlightened democratic governance, we should have introduced them at the first stage, from where all our leaders spring. We should have insisted, from the very beginning, that only those with university degrees or high school diplomas can vote.

Crucify them

To strengthen our nascent democracy, let us avoid any arbitrary actions or omissions that could sabotage or subvert it through the back door. Let us allow anyone, who is not a criminal or of unsound mind, to stand for Parliamentary elections, whether he or she holds a university degree or not.

If the people of that constituency decide to vote for him or her, fully knowing his academic qualifications, that should be their business and theirs alone. Let us not effectively disenfranchise millions of our fellow citizens by crucifying them on the cross of a university degree whose value none of us can accurately define in the first place.

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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