Has neoliberalism set up education in Africa to fail?

Chepng’arwa Primary School

Grade One pupils at Chepng’arwa Primary School in Tiaty, Baringo County learn under a tree on September 15, 2021. The school does not have enough classrooms. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • East Africa was largely bequeathed the British system of education, with variations following Italian, German or even French in some countries.
  • It is not surprising that children from wealthy families can actually choose to study music, dance, acting, fine arts, and such other subjects that are derided in the local system.

If you read Karim Hirji’s book, Under-Education in Africa: From Colonialism to Neoliberalism (Daraja Press, 2019) you will be left wondering what can ever be done to reset the systems of education in Africa. Systems?

Yes, because Africa is saddled with various educational programs, most of them inherited from the various colonisers of different parts of the continent, but which seem to be perpetually in trouble.

East Africa, for example, was largely bequeathed the British system of education, with variations following Italian, German or even French in some countries. Kenya is currently implementing a 2-6-3-3-3, which is replacing the 8-4-4 system, which had replaced the 7-4-2-3 program, which had replaced an earlier version that was more driven towards producing Africans with technical skills only.

Uganda, Tanzania and the other members of the East African community struggle on, with the children of ordinary citizens offered what is often an incoherent syllabus that is increasingly described as ‘not offering skills that match market needs.’

On the other hand, children of the rich have a field day choosing between different ‘international’ systems that are meant to prepare them for higher education, especially college, abroad; beyond Africa.

The rich have no time for the local systems of education. In fact, they hardly care about it as their children will not only study a foreign language from the earliest time in school but will actually choose a career path for their children because they can pay for it.

Wealthy families

It is not surprising that children from wealthy families can actually choose to study music, dance, acting, fine arts, and such other subjects that are derided in the local system. It is ironic that whilst the affluent can study the arts, the poor are exhorted to study the sciences, technical subjects and mathematics. Apparently these are the subjects that will prepare children of the poor to enter the future job market; a market that has no time for people who study ‘soft subjects.’

But how did we reach this state where subjects that would prepare young people to fit into the society are discouraged and despised? Why is the system of education in Africa on a seeming permanent downward spiral towards irrelevance? Why are African governments obsessed with the notion of the ‘market’ as the key to the kind of education system they may offer to the majority of their citizens?

Why is it that more than six decades since a majority of African countries gained independence from their colonial masters, Africans still remain beholden to Euro-American systems of education?

Neoliberalism is often very seductive. It has the capacity to produce very appealing phrases such as ‘market-driven’ or ‘market-oriented’ or ‘marketable’ or ‘compatible with technological advancement and innovation etc.

These terms then easily seep into debates and policy positions on education uncritically. When government officers, politicians, educationists, among other ‘stakeholders’ (whatever this word means) adopt these words, they foreclose any critical examination of the education system. They predetermine what can be said and what can’t about pedagogy and the kind of person that education should produce at the end of the school cycle.

Neoliberal propositions

Often, users of these neoliberal propositions don’t even seem aware of the short term, let alone long term, consequences of implementing proposals such as cost-sharing in schools, less emphasis on the liberal arts (and more resources on STEM), underfunding college/university education (purportedly because only a few people access higher education), among others.

Instead of expanding access to education, these proposals erode gains made in the past towards making basic education universally available for free or at a lesser cost.

The reported shortage of teachers at Junior Secondary School in the CBC system is a direct result of cost-cutting measures in funding education. How could the government not have projected that thousands of young learners would complete Grade Six and join Junior Seven in six years?

 Did someone somewhere not want to spend money to train teachers in advance, build enough classes, prepare laboratories and technical rooms, expand playgrounds, equip the schools with computers (since IT is a big part of the syllabus), and create a better learning environment for the new learners.

Because neoliberalism tells us to look at the market, skills and knowledge rather than to think harder about the kind of person who graduates from lower primary, lower secondary, high school or college, Kenya finds itself in a difficult situation in terms of retraining or training teachers, preparing curricula, establishing mechanisms for evaluation, and thinking about the academic fit of the learner who exits each one of the school stages.

Will our graduates at each of the five stages, for instance, academically fit in a system that is not CBC? Considering that neighboring countries do not follow the CBC system, have we negotiated or even thought about conversion of competencies, grades or certificates across the East African Community or Africa?

Neoliberalism is a cultural animal. It is not a scientific idea as its promoters tend to sell it. See how, though Kenyans are going on unperturbed with implementing CBC, all kinds of experts (in the market) are warning that the country might find it difficult to fully realize the objectives of the new system. Why? Because there seem to be just too many unanswered questions about what exactly CBC is. If the new curriculum claims to be fully based on attainment of ‘competencies’, then what was the old system doing? Is there a syllabus that does not hope to impart competencies to the learner or help the learner develop some competencies?

Neoliberal ideas

The one damaging consequence of buying into neoliberal ideas on education in Africa is that though these ideas are retailed in some kind of ‘global’ market, they do not necessarily entertain differences and counter ideas. What global means really is the West, America and even Asia. African thinkers, educationists, policymakers, teachers and even learners can only ‘fit’ into that which is already declared as global.

Why remain local when we are citizens of a bigger world? Sure, the world could be big, but does it allow everyone to think big or even small in their own way? Does the global allow for social, economic, political, religious, racial, and regional differences? If information technology is key for the learner today and tomorrow, then why is it not made affordable to poor learners in Africa?

Why is it that African universities with whole departments of science, technology, mathematics, computer studies, engineering, medicine etc. are so underfunded? Why are African countries still unable to fully fund free basic education after liberation from colonialism?

Why do the best African students still chase after (or are sponsored to pursue) education in the West or Asia? At the root of these questions is a bigger cultural question: what kind of African does the system of education hope to produce in this century?

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]