MKU Chairman B.O.D talk about KCSE exam results
I am among the increasingly reducing number of Kenyans who went through the A-level system of education, which gave way, in the mid to late 1980s, to the current 8-4-4 model that is itself on the verge of replacement.
One of the things that I value so much about the A-level was the way it was structured to allow for subjects specialisation by students two years before they would sit university entry examination.
I could not help but recall this system, and appreciate its advantages, as the week-long debate raged on the implications of the recently-released KCSE test results.
For the second year running, these results have provoked intense public debate on the idea of mass failure of students, provoking accusations and counter-accusations from key players.
While some of the players from the Ministry of Education are celebrating the restoration of education standards that had ostensibly been on the decline for years, critics from civil society and the general public see in the new trend a particular scheme whose final impact will be ruining life chances of many a youth whose dreams of joining university have now been dashed because they did not attain the minimum C+ grade required for advancement to university education.
In both cases, the numbers have been used to show just how good or grim the matter is.
In 2016, only 15.6 per cent of the total 571,161 candidates scored a C+ in KCSE, while 11.4 per cent of 610, 501 achieved the same feat in 2017, hence the outcry that the ministry is condemning an entire generation to misery by labelling them as failures.
As a stakeholder with modest investment in Kenya’s higher education sector, the figures also concern me, not so much because of the life opportunities that are extended or deprived by the C+ cut-off point, but in the logic and meaning the C+ grade.
How did we as a country end up with C+ as the line that defines a ‘pass’ and a ‘fail’?
Granted, that seems to be the nearest indicator of ‘above average’, but to use it as a determinant of entry to university seems both ridiculous and unfair to me.
Ridiculous because it is somewhat abstract; used for gatekeeping only, and ridiculous because there is no indication in human terms that whoever scores a C+ is more brilliant than the other candidate with a C plain, yet the grade difference translates to a world of difference in terms of opportunities in accessing university level education.
For me, therefore, the direction taken by the current public debate on the implications of the numbers above or below C+ grade is unnecessarily narrow because it is not asking the kind of questions that we should be asking.
Instead, many contributors to this debate seem to have accepted the cut-off grade of C+ as a sacred no-go zone that should be untouched even as it imposes the glory of ‘pass’ on those who attain it, or damnation of ‘fail’ on those who do not. Yet, this need not be the case.
Shouldn’t it be possible to have among students who score a mean of, say C Plain, and who can still be admitted to university to pursue courses in which they have competence, and which reflect their passion?
I think that this should be possible, if we take the hypothetical case of a student who scores As in Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry but fails to make the C+ grade because they earned Ds in the humanities.
Why should this candidate be barred from pursuing a degree even in engineering simply because his performance in Kiswahili or Agriculture fell in the D bracket?
Failure to consider this hypothetical student is the bigger tragedy for me, and not simply that he did not meet the aggregate C+ which we, as Kenyans, seem to have uncritically accepted as the ‘minimum qualification’.
Yet, these students exist in fact, they are not just creatures of my imagination.
The case of this hypothetical student also highlights the role of cluster subjects in the selection of university courses for even those who pass to join any of Kenya’s universities.
While many students understand the importance of the C+ grade in determining university entry, not many fully appreciate the concept of cluster subjects and how these determine the particular courses that anyone can admitted to pursue.
This is why many students spend time and money revisiting their choices of university courses, sometimes making such revisions twice.
This is not only time and money wasting, but it also shows the lack of certainty in the career paths that these youth wish to take, and further explain the emerging trend where many university graduates pursue jobs that are barely linked to what they studied in college.
Indeed, research shows that over 65 per cent of university students in Kenya pursue degree courses that they did not choose, but which they have to endure because either they are the only ones that they qualify for, or because the university placement body imposed those choices on the students based on their performance in the relevant cluster subjects.
Resulting from this scenario are the many Kenyans who earned degrees in education, for instance, now employed in banks as tellers or human resource managers in the many organisations in the country.
Even among those who pursue postgraduate studies, a huge proportion enrols for master’s degree programmes that are far removed from their first degrees.
What this means is that there exists a gap between the young Kenyans’ preferred careers and those imposed on them by the degree programmes that they are admitted into at the university entry point.
This gap has implications not just in financial terms, but also in the attitudes that many of the graduates carry to the world of work.
We have teachers who are always in search of opportunities in journalism, nurses and doctors who do not always extend the human touch to patients, civil engineers whose work cannot stand the test of time, among many others. How do we remedy this?
One way is to ensure that students are admitted to study degree programmes which they have thought long and hard about because they have a passion in them.
This is achievable if the curriculum that we embrace allows for a kind of specialisation in the general area before students can sit university entry examinations.