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Kenyans are now in the golden age of titles...

By XN Iraki | June 21st 2016
Egerton University Chancellor Prof Shem Wandiga (front), Vice Chancellor Prof Rose Mwonya (in red) during the institution’s graduation last week. The VC encouraged more graduates to enroll for research programmes to enable the country find solutions to challenges it is facing. [PHOTO: MERCY KAHENDA/STANDARD

Our Deputy President will soon be graduating with a PhD. Many other high ranking Kenyans don the title, but they are honourable, having never stepped into anyone’s class. They have not collected data and tortured it for information, using Structural Equation Modelling (SEM), non parametric statistics or time series analysis (are you intimidated?).

Welcome to the golden age of titles. The pursuit for titles has almost reached hysterical level. That is not unusual for Kenyans; we like moving in droves, as a herd. Once the master’s degree became the new normal, it was a matter of time before PhD became the next target. Today, PhD classes are full, patronised by recent masters degree graduates and lots of CEOs from both corporate and private sectors. Your boss is more likely to be found in a classroom somewhere in the city rather than in a pub.

Why the pursuit of titles? Will it always be that way? Titles are the new status symbol. Some flamboyant church leaders were ahead of the market and got titles which they flaunt in their work. The rest of the Kenyans are catching up.

What happened to the old status symbols like cars, houses, holiday destinations? They are tired and with the rising affluence, easily accessible. The worst thing about these material status symbols is that no one notices. If you drive a big car, we may never know who is inside. We rarely know who the owners of great maisonettes in leafy suburbs are.

Titles are long lasting; they are recognized by more people, awe a lot of more people and are currently rare. You are addressed by titles everyday (in Kenya) and that massages your ego. There are about two million cars in Kenya and new ones are bought every day. Less than 0.01 per cent of Kenyans are PhD holders. That makes the title very prestigious and sets you apart from the crowd-which Kenyans love.

But it is more than prestige. The average age of a PhD student in one Kenyan university is about 40 years. At that age, one has reached the apogee in the work place, children are not crying around the fire place, you got some money and the echoes of your last graduation ceremony have long died. And the midlife is not far. You need some recognition, a title. Everyone is Mr.

Once you get the title few ever ask many questions like where you got it, how (including outsourcing) and in what. A PhD in theology (I have nothing against theology) and one in nuclear engineering are treated the same way.

Some have argued that pursuit of titles is an import from Nigeria, just like juju, and shows how we are obsessed with earthly things. One student comically told me the pursuit is to improve the obituary in addition to CV. Some observers argue that this pursuit is more about inadequacy; you want something to fill some void in you. Who is more likely to pursue a PhD?; a graduate of Alliance high School or Shamakhokho High school? Why are Asians and Wazungus not in PhD classes?

There is economics in it too. Titles are leading to better and more paying jobs, particularly in the public sector. Even county officials are now PhD holders. Publicising the names of candidates for various big jobs has sent a signal to the market that titles matter. Is relentless pursuit of titles good for our economy?

Social scientists

Some could argue it is good for the individuals; the self fulfilment, makes them more confident in work leading to higher productivity which is good for the economy. Others argue persuasively that such titles make us arrogant and dismissive of other people’s ideas. Yet some of greatest ideas come from the ordinary people. The first Kenyan I met with two patents to his name was an MBA student! Can he contact me? Titles also make us feel entitled to less work and more pay.

Titles are more like marriages, easy to celebrate on the wedding day, but what happens after that is what matters. If you pursue titles without commitment, they come to haunt you like bad marriages. We all hope that such titles will translate into higher productivity, new products, and a more efficient economy.

But sadly, most of these titles are in humanities, where filing patents is rare. Even “hard scientists” are defecting to social sciences to pursue their PhD. They say it is easier. So most benefits of titles accrue to the individual not the nation. Am I too harsh on social scientists?

At the end of WWII, Americans had one target, German Scientists. They were transplanted into USA and formed the embryo of the US space programme that culminated in man landing on the moon. Can you imagine Kenya invading Tanzania, and the first target are all PhD holders in science or engineering.

Dr Matiang’i emphasis on Science and technology has lots of merit, though some are quick to misinterpret that he is calling for the killing of humanities. Will it always be this way?

Titles could be a fad, like quail or green cards. With time the market will sort out the wheat from the chaff. Luckily within the many pursuing the titles, a number might be fully committed to knowledge and our nation could benefit from their research. The non-committed, will be in economic speak misallocation of resources, not just in fees paid but in time which could have been put into more productive activities.

What does the regulator, CUE say? A better question is what will be the next status symbol after PhD. Finally to Dr Ruto (by December); Can you please start inviting Science Congress winners to Statehouse like Drama festival winners?

—The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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