The objective of higher education has been to produce graduates who can write well, think critically, innovate and solve complex problems, communicate effectively and analyse diverse political, cultural, and social-economic matters.
For a long-time, policy discussions have been centred on access, leading to a massive expansion in higher education. In Tanzania, for instance, figures from the Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) show that there are more than 30 universities and more than 17 university colleges in the country, making admission up to more than 50,000 students in the academic year 2021/22.
Yet, there has been a clamour for a review of Tanzania’s education and training policy of 2014 as well as education curricula following concerns by practitioners, policymakers, activists and the general public.
The discussion has been more about whether our education system can develop economically responsible graduates and less about how our education can prepare a well-rounded graduate politically (democratic citizenry), socially, and culturally.
As often as not, we have heard of politicians who have been joined by several other groups such as businesspersons and government officials issuing a clarion call to youths, vijana mjiajiri, stressing self-employment for graduates. But the question remains, how the education system has prepared graduates to thrive beyond the campus in a rapidly changing society and economy?
Although the university has lost the monopoly on knowledge, it remains a leading institution in the acquisition, development and dissemination of knowledge as well as shaping society into a more prosperous one. However, there have been several ‘villains’ of higher education through which education mismatches the real world.
Firstly, a significant number of students enrol in college while being poorly prepared, purposeless and clueless about college life and the high demands it makes. Additionally, they lack discipline and basic college skills.
Consequently, they fail to have a purposeful, sound, and meaningful career. Also, there is a dramatic decrease in students’ effort, lack of learning initiative, and more troubling still, numerous students enrol in college with unrealistic expectations about varsity life.
A famous saying chuo bata has derailed a lot of students from their career paths as they devote their significant time and efforts to pursuing social interests while putting relatively minimal efforts and time into academia (learning important skills and micro-credentials).
While colleges do not enable students to embrace the important philosophy of contemporary education—lifelong education by setting a foundation of learning, unlearning, skilling and reskilling – students trail in their very own responsibility either.
Much focus on academic credentials rather than learning is another villain in our education system. Although tests and exams form an important part of a student’s assessment, there is much weight given to credentials (grades) while empirically there is a discrepancy between credentials and skills (problem-solving) in numerous cases.
Despite the weakness of credentialism it still receives high regard. This leads to the emphasis on form over content—promoting an education system that rewards students for formal compliance with modest performance requirements rather than operational mastery of skills deemed politically and socially useful.
Another villain is a lack of a proper academic supporting system. In a well-developed education system, there will be a well-functioning system that facilitates students’ academic success by supporting them both academically, psychologically, financially, materially and mentally.
Despite funding through HESLB, some students are unable to cover learning expenses accordingly. To add salt to the wound, they can’t even secure effective academic direction and psychological assistance through counselling and supervision since the units responsible are not well equipped to handle multidimensional issues of students.
A modest investment in teaching-learning infrastructures also hits higher education since the degree to which we invest in our higher learning is strongly interrelated to the quality of products that we ultimately produce.
For instance, the modest investments manifest through a shortage of academic books, scanty decent venues for academic activities to the extent that students sit for exams in the cafeteria, and a lack of basic learning tools for practical demonstration for highly demanding courses.
This partly contributes to half-backed graduates since learning is discouraged and studying for exams is encouraged.
The shortage of faculty members in colleges is now a very obvious villain despite the recent placements. A reasonable number of faculty members is crucial for a viable and sustainable university.
However, the student-lecturers ratio is gravely high to the extent that it profoundly inhibits students’ development since the quality of academic activities declines and therefore takes a peril on students’ development.
For instance, we are talking of a 2000+:1 students-lecturers ratio in some courses where TCU’s standard ratio is 1:10-50 for a program depending on academic discipline.
This translates into compromised academic activities i.e., examination marking quality, decreased consultation and poor lecturing. This scary ratio puts the academic development of potential graduates in jeopardy.
It’s not merely a shortage but, though not famous, the inadequacy of competent faculty members is another villain that exists. The establishment of a world-class university that produces graduates with top-notch skills highly rests on the availability of competent faculty members.
Before blaming graduates’ skills deficit and questioning the whole higher education system let’s ask ourselves, how many international lecturers do we have in our colleges?
Unfortunately, we are shamelessly an era that our dear professors and higher education administrators live in the far more past centuries as they believe in putting much weight on academic credentials (GPA) in hiring faculty members rather than potentials such as analytical capability, innovative capability and research potential would make any difference in securing competent academicians.
The inadequacy of competent faculty members is accompanied by a lack of commitment from faculty members. This also acts as a villain for the reason that preparing full-backed graduates requires commitment from faculty members among other factors.
Lack of commitment
There is a lack of faculty members’ commitment in both state-owned and private institutions due to several factors. Meagre remuneration is pronounced as one of the factors for less motivation from faculty members and the situation is even worse in private institutions that are operating in very difficult conditions.
Some faculty members will opt to focus more on their projects such as research that earns them more money rather than spending a significant time strictly on academic activities. How is a student being hurt? The pain would probably be felt in the labour market.
Also, there is what seems to be little ambition and aspiration of our universities to be at the top tier in the international arena. Universities no longer feel the external pressure to demonstrate learning. There is no DNA of academic excellence that is ingrained among faculty members from the VC to DVCs and even tutorial assistants.
It is even surprising that faculty members are feeling comfortable not publishing. The supporting non-academic staffs are also far from excellent since they don’t align their professions to the character of a top-tier university. There are many staffs in our colleges with attitudes that odds with the world-class university.
Commercialization of higher education
Though never mentioned the commercialization of higher education is another villain. The blooming of private colleges in the last few years has been both a blessing and a curse.
If well managed the combination of private and public higher education institutions can bring a lot of blessings to our education system such as innovation, the affluence that will bring a capacity to accommodate more students and more degree program options just to mention a few.
However, the relationship that exists where a student is regarded as a customer threatens the education quality since colleges vie for customers and as a result, they would reluctantly penalize them heavily even if they are lazy, incompetent and will be liabilities in the market after graduating.
Although public universities are not under the pressure of admitting a reasonable students’ number to operate, they also crave income.
In some public universities, admission is not parallel with the teaching-learning infrastructures, while admission is growing geometrically, the supporting infrastructures are growing arithmetically something that creates academic chaos in the respective universities.
Sadly enough, you won’t see universities and the respective authorities taking practical initiatives that will solve the problem soon to avoid the impending catastrophe in higher education.
Language of instruction
Learning language has been proclaimed as one of the hindrances to students learning. Recently there has been a heated debate that is yet to be concluded on teaching language, but at least the debate has raised intriguing arguments.
There are many instances where a significant number of students if not all end up absorbing almost nothing in a lecture. Moreover, a language proficiency challenge hinders students from grasping and comprehending knowledge from strictly intellectual documents.
A university degree is also downgraded by a feeble integration between theory and practice. Although learning through theory is linked with developing critical thinking skills, students will acquire comprehensive skills and experience through practice as a more effective strategy of learning.
Students lack real-life experiences that would have been acquired by integrating classroom knowledge with platforms such as internships, apprenticeships, co-opt, part-time jobs and meaningful volunteerism that will allow students to familiarize themselves with the real-world dynamics.
The aforementioned villains show why a university degree is disoriented from the real world. To eliminate those villains there should be a robust approach rather than patched-up approaches that look at each specific impediment separately.
Allen Temba is a Tanzanian academician and education activist. He is available at email@example.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.