Modernizing Tertiary Education – some ideas

Greetings Listers,
The world is changing very rapidly and things that the older generations took for granted no longer apply. There are no jobs waiting for students when they graduate – that era ended decades ago (I believe in the 70s and early 80s). Yet, for some reason, academia appears to be stuck in time, doing things that no longer make sense.

Here are some thoughts / ideas on what can be done to reform and rescue our tertiary education sector. (PhD holders might be interested in debating point No. 6. – is it too harsh or the right approach in principle? HR Policy practitioners might be interested in point No. 5..):

1. There is need for Government to strategically position TVETs and Universities as direct implementers of Vision 2030 and Big 4 objectives. Example – academia role should include creating sustainable jobs directly, and taking measures to guarantee high employment of graduates; instead of mechanically preparing our young people for jobs that may, or may not exist, then leaving them trapped in debt.

2. Expand CUE mandate to cover TVETs (as Commission for Tertiary Education); and then Implement a Universal Credit Accumulation and Transfer System – that creates multiple pathways *of equal status* towards higher qualifications (i.e. including transferable credits for TVET education and/or credits for demonstrable on-the-job / startup experience). This calls for a national skills mapping database that is derived from, and/or supports strategic national objectives (as outlined in vision 2030 & Big 4 master-plans). Accelerate regional accreditation to leverage intra-Africa synergies in view of AfCFTA.

3. Require *all* form 4 / grade x leavers to first attend TVETs for at least 2 years to gain hands-on technical skills for real world self-sufficiency, before they (i.e. those who wish to do so) attend university. Rationale: We need to keep our eye on the goal. The goal of education, imo,is not to create “paper churning, hands-off, intellectual elites” who lack real-world-relevant skills, but to create a competent, grounded, hands-on, innovative and future-proofed workforce that is capable of applying knowledge by making or doing things that help solve, in tangible and measurable ways, very specific challenges faced by our country (primarily) or to help solve global problems in a way that primarily and tangibly benefits our country (enhancing our global brand / jobs creation / high-value exports / attracting high quality FDI etc).

4. De-eliticize university education by creating high-value technical specialist pathways via TVETs (for high paying jobs and societal status / recognition). This would temper the belief held by the general public that a university degree is the only path to success and social mobility / status.

5. Employers to emphasize and primarily rely on real-world achievements for competence signalling – rather than relying on academic papers. For example, job advertisements should stop asking for academic qualifications. This is a pointless, tick-box requirement that only creates a market for “River Road degrees”.

For regulated roles, like medicine or engineering, having a valid practicing license should be a sufficient indicator of academic achievement as the license (hopefully) cannot be issued without verification of the required academic background.

We now have the indigenous capacity to implement competency-based hiring painlessly with technology (e.g. via ongoing programs of supervised, automated technical screening assessments to create a national pool of vetted job candidates – which incidentally would eliminate a lot of wastefully redundant HR activities – at macro level). Hopefully tenderpreneurs / MNC lobbyists will not hijack and subvert this idea. Shindwe! 🙂

Incidentally implementing the above suggestion will reduce incentives for cheating or cram & dump learning.

6. Using policy and regulation to strictly limit career pathways for PhD holders such that they primarily engage in research and academia. Government and corporations should stop hiring PhD holders for full-time administrative roles, for example. It is wasteful, short-sighted and counterproductive (considering the massive resources expended to educate people to that level, as well as the need to productively leverage the intellectual potential of earned PhD holders as a super-scarce resource in Africa).

PhD holders should be primarily dedicated to pushing the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of our country – and they should be rewarded very well for it and accorded top societal honors / as well as status (so they are not tempted to seek jobs that do not develop / challenge their intellectual abilities / potential).

The only exception would be for very specific, short term, high-impact, research-reliant-projects or initiatives with very precise and highly specialized objectives, where exceptionally high levels of real expertise is needed.

The PhD designation should have (3-5) designation levels that signify real-world achievement at post-doctorate level. PhD holders, other than retirees, who wish to permanently engage in non-research work (or work that can be done by Masters / Bachelors degree holders) should be required to permanently relinquish their PhD qualification and lose the “Dr.” designation.

There needs to be a distinctive high-status designation for non-academic honorary doctorates e.g. “Exceptional Life Achiever Degree” with the title “Lx.” in recognition of non-academic transformational achievements with high societal impact.

7. Academic institutions should form corporations to engage in intellectual property businesses for profit (e.g. IP licensing / manufacturing & distribution) to raise research funds. This requires a pragmatic expansion of institutional mandate as well as strengthening and contextualizing the indigenous IP framework.

8. Pedagogy should be driven by a projects-based learning paradigm with deep integration of learning and real-world work. Removing artificial (and retrogressive) boundaries or demarcations between industry and academia:

a. Why should learners first graduate before they can start working? This is a mindset problem. Does it make sense to have schoolwork and employment / MSME startups kept separate (yet they are complementary and interdependent)?

b. Why allow someone without real-world paid work (not industrial attachment, but a real job or real MSME startup experience) to graduate?

c. Why can’t students learn and gain academic credits on the job (doing real, paid work for someone or in their own startups)?

d.  Why ask our children to choose the projects they want to work on without setting a strategic real-world context that is mapped to real world goals (e.g. Big 4) and real career prospects. Projects-based learning can solve this – with emphasis on projects that can create sustainable wealth for the country (sold to regional governments or the consumer public).

We need to train a generation of self-starters who can survive by creating their own opportunities – irrespective of the economy or jobs market.

Students should incorporate real startups (with seed funding from Government) during 2nd year – to make and sell products that solve real-world problems in our country / region – and then earn transferable academic credits for demonstrable experience.

Employers like Government, MSMEs and corporations can embed academia into the workplace by adopting an apprenticeship approach in partnership with Universities and TVETs to hire 2nd year students and assign them to projects that enable them to earn “on-job learning credits”.

By the time they graduate, at least 99% ought to be gainfully employed (or running real businesses). This is how you tackle poverty and unemployment in a sustainable way. So what really prevents us from doing this – other than mindset?

I know the above might read like heresy to traditionalists – but before you grab the pitchforks and light the torches, look around you… status quo is not working, that’s the reality – and things will get worse as 4IR gradually kicks in – if we don’t effect radical transformation.

I’d be happy to have a round-table with the faculty of any tertiary institution that is interested in discussing / debating the above points.

Have a great evening!
Patrick A. M. Maina[Cross Domain Innovator | Independent Public Policy Analyst – Indigenous Innovations]

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