Education plays a catalytic role in the growth of any society. It helps shapes attitudes and inculcates values in citizens.
It also trains manpower necessary for the socio-economic development of society. The standard of education in any country consequently has a direct relationship to the levels of development. While not the only determinant of development, education is an important variable.
The founding president identified three ills that his new government needed to eradicate, namely poverty, ignorance and disease. Since then, the annual budget has always had education top the list of fund allocations.
With the new Constitution, the right to education was entrenched and the state required to take measures to ensure its realisation.
Vision 2030, which is our development blueprint, also underscores the high premium the country has to place on education to realise faster and deeper levels of development.
More work needs to be done to ensure there is widespread access to education for the majority, if not all the citizens. This would enable the country better deal with the ills of poverty.
One area that has seen expansion in recent years is university education. For a long time, less than 10 per cent of the population attended university.
However, recent changes including the adoption of self-sponsored programmes and establishment of more universities have led to a sharp increase in the number of graduates.
Attention has now turned to the quality and relevance of education being offered, especially in universities. Is Kenya training a relevant workforce? Are graduates prepared for the job market? Do their skills address the future needs of the country?
A few weeks ago, the president met chancellors of public universities and raised these concerns with them. He urged that even as universities continue to expand, there is need to ensure that quality is not compromised.
An aspect of the president’s statement that requires further reflection is the call for focus on more market-oriented courses.
This is not the first time this statement is being made. The deputy president also made this same call when he was minister for Higher Education under the coalition government. And while this is a valid concern, it is important that we see it in a larger context.
Education is supposed to respond to market needs. But this does not mean that we drop less market-centered courses. They have a role to play in society, too.
What is required is to ask whether our education is based on, and relevant to, the society. This is larger than being responsive to the market. A robust university education system should be in tune with the contexts, demands and aspirations of Kenyans.
I have spent this past week at a university exchange programme at The Federal University of Amazonas and the Amazonas State University, in Manaus, Brazil. The visit was supported by the Ford Foundation.