There’s no need to attend university. The world is a wondrous place awash with myriad opportunities, all one has to do is seek them.
Or is it?
Nairobi’s CBD, for example, feels like every second building houses a university campus. The place is veritably colonized by the campuses of far-flung universities. “It’s a brave new world” we seem to say in this country, and what better way to conquer it than with a degree in hand?
There is, however, a group of young Kenyans that is not going to university despite this expanded choice. They are heading instead to highly technical colleges where they focus intensively on one subject for a year or two. These are not to be confused with our traditional youth polytechnics, which seem to somehow have fallen out of national discourse. These are more like the latter-day manifestations of the computer colleges once popular in the 1990s.
Speaking to these young men and women, they tell stories of long school hours comparable to a return to secondary school. During this time, they pack in the equivalent of a four-year course sometimes in as little as nine months. Their argument is this: ‘I am out to get a qualification or a highly valuable skill, not so much a piece of paper that brands me as having attended one prestigious university or other.’
They are attending such colleges as BIFA (Buruburu Institute of Fine Ats), Nairobits and Shang Tao. They leave these places with a wide array of skills in their chosen field and get into the job market three, sometimes four, years before their university-educated peers. Is this a great alternative to the slog of four years of tertiary education?
There are numerous arguments against the ivory tower. MOOCs (massive open online courses) tell us the internet is the answer. Mention is regularly made of famous people who did not complete university as exemplars of the fact that one doesn’t need to go to university to be rich, famous, or talented. As we speak, we forget that there are people who are passing up university, maybe being overlooked.
Why is that?
It’s important to analyse the place of university in this country. We have moved from a country which had very few graduates in 1990 to one where a degree seems commonplace. Just a generation ago, only the select few were afforded the chance to have this sort of education. Now, more than ever, Kenya is producing more graduates than it knows what to do with.
The question has been asked, more than once, whether it makes sense to push for everyone to have a chance to go to university. Is it an inalienable right or one that lends the graduate some social cachet and not much else? It could be argued that some of the best minds in many fields are resident in universities across the globe. Attending one is a chance to interact with them, to learn, to collaborate. If anything, this is the great appeal of such schools as Harvard or Oxford. Leaders in whichever field are to be found in these institutions,ergo it makes sense to pursue a chance to learn at the feet of masters. There are those that argue that university is chiefly a hub that connects people with varied interests or lends them a chance to explore those interests. Essentially, those people argue, universities are places of serendipity. One never knows what will come of it. For those who elect to pass up the opportunity, what do they miss or gain? Why would they pass it up, to begin with?
Money is a key factor in the decision-making process. The lack of it, or the desire to make some. University is still a luxury only a few people can afford yet post-secondary skills are essential if one is to acquire a job that pays more than a living wage. These colleges essentially fill a gap that is not being spoken about. They lend young people a chance to improve their lot without breaking the bank. This is a quality that cannot be gainsaid. Even government-sponsored students in Kenyan public universities have to shell out upwards of KSh 40,000 a year to get an education. Grants and bursaries exist but they will generally not cover all the cost. Bearing in mind the fact that most people live on under $2 a day, this is a huge load to shoulder.
It could also be said that this is a knowledge economy. It’s not about the paper you have as much as the skills you possess. If one thinks about it like that, then these focused colleges are the way to go. If one thinks of it through the lens of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, then these young Kenyans are actually better prepared for the world of work than the university graduates in their fields. They leave college well versed in their field and head out to internships or jobs that further enrich them. Moreover, those vaunted MOOCs are a perfect way to gain extra skills on their own time as they work.
Universities lend themselves to a little art, some music, some sport, and some community service. These are however available only to those that actively seek them out. Essentially, some people in university may have the same, maybe fewer, opportunities for enrichment as those who do not attend university. For me, the question is how to reconcile these opportunities with the expediency of a focused college.
One of the things that emerged was a bias among Kenyan employers against those without degrees. While they gladly hire alumni of these colleges, they do so at lower rates, viewing them as cheap (but nonetheless good) labour. This bias coupled with a reticence on the part of many universities to acknowledge the skills these young people possess whenever they apply for degree courses, leaves these students well between a rock and a hard place.
As we go forward, we need to consider what it means to be educated. We also need to think about issues of access, the justice of pay and the opportunities for enrichment that we as a country can afford young people, whether or not they attend university.