Can Ruto’s education taskforce deliver workable reforms?
Towards that objective, the Presidential Working Party on Education Reform was mandated to undertake a comprehensive review of the country’s competency-based curriculum, basic education as well technical and university education, within a period of six months.
Newly elected President William Ruto appointed the 49-member taskforce that was announced on 30 September by means of a special issue of the official Kenya Gazette.
During the campaign trail leading to the general election held on 9 August, Ruto had pledged to make drastic changes in the education sector if elected as Kenya’s fifth president.
Higher education reforms
Specifically, on higher education, the committee will be required to study all laws governing the tertiary education subsector and to make recommendations to review legislation with a view to increasing access to affordable and relevant higher education.
The committee will also make recommendations to initiate operations of a national open university, a model that would be borrowed from the University of South Africa, or UNISA, the world’s first university to offer distance education exclusively.
In 2018, the government approved a proposal to set up an open university but the idea was shelved later as a result of the economic downturn occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ruto now wants such a university to be established without further delay.
The taskforce will be led by Professor Raphael Munavu, a former vice-chancellor of Moi University, and will make recommendations on how open, distance and e-learning, or ODEL, modes could be enhanced in other public universities in the country.
According to Munavu, who is Ruto’s adviser on higher education, the benefits of online learning that were gained during the COVID-19 pandemic should be strengthened.
“Online learning is not only affordable but provides students with customised learning experiences,” said Munavu.
Ruto’s appointed committee is also mandated to make recommendations on the transition from secondary education to university.
In this regard, the taskforce has a free hand to come up with a new educational format that would anchor formal qualifications to join university.
The committee was also urged to establish clear pathways for graduates of technical and vocational education and training, or TVET who would like to join universities.
Tertiary education fund
During the campaign, Ruto had pledged to establish a national tertiary education fund that would mobilise resources in terms of grants, bursaries and scholarships from private and public sponsors to cater for non-tuition costs in public universities.
“To improve higher education funding, my government will establish a mechanism that will bring together the disjointed bodies that cater for higher education,” Ruto had told supporters.
In that aspect, the taskforce had been asked to review and recommend legislation and other changes that will merge the current Higher Education Loans Board, TVET Funding Board and the University Funding Board with a view to harmonising all tertiary education funding entities.
Ruto has pledged to double higher education student loans from the current KES11 billion (US$91 million) per year and intends to make such loans interest-free.
Politicians and education reforms
The appointment of the taskforce on education reform appears to be Ruto’s first major public policy in the early stages of his administration, something that is similar to actions of Kenya’s past presidents, Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta.
Each of these men had a penchant for using education reform to solidify public support, as well as crafting the image of being leaders of the people. Like his predecessors, Ruto appears to be riding on that platform.
Even then, there has been discontent in the country with the implementation of the current competency-based curriculum and strong voices had emerged, urging the government to review the system – not just on how it is impacting learning at the basic education level, but mainly on assessments and qualifications leading to tertiary education and the world of work.
The current education system that is fragmented in early years of education, middle school and senior school, as well as tertiary and university education, was introduced by Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016 with limited planning and without public participation.
The cornerstone of the system was a heavy load of practical activities that would equip learners with skills that would make them employable, facilitate self-employment or encourage students to study academic fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects.
But, for most parents, the system was not working well for their children and they recalled a similar pledge that was made by Moi in 1981, when he had promised an education system that would allow most learners to study vocational and technical skills up to university education.
But that aspect was not to be, as institutions at all levels of education lacked resources and teachers were barely equipped to teach sciences and technical subjects.
According to a World Bank study, ‘Expanding Tertiary Education for Well-Paid Jobs: Competitiveness and shared prosperity in Kenya’, enrolment in STEM disciplines at the universities stands at merely 22%.
The study argues that the need to invest in expensive equipment and the nature of laboratory-based education – costs associated with delivering STEM-related programmes – are higher than those associated with delivering classroom-based courses in the social sciences and humanities.
“As a consequence, when policymakers and institutions are confronted with significant pressure to expand admissions, there has been a tendency to push more students towards the humanities and social sciences,” stated the World Bank.
Will he lead the youth to the land of promise?
Subsequently, this situation is not likely to change radically for the better in the near future, whichever education framework will be recommended by the taskforce in the next six months.
The crux of the matter is that, since 1981, when Moi invited Dr Colin Mackay, a Canadian academic, to set up an education system for self-reliance, Kenya, just like so many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, had been struggling to fix education to curb unemployment.
Even then, the appointment of the taskforce is good news to many Kenyans who are in need of a tertiary education that would improve national productivity and sustainable livelihoods.
But, just like his predecessors, Ruto has started a popular tune and only time will tell whether his reform will expand tertiary education to the right direction or whether it will be another gimmick for seeking public support from hustling youth that he has pledged to lead to the land of promise.