Days when education was a status symbol long gone

Grandaunts during the University of Nairobi 53rd Graduation ceremony, Nairobi, on September 4, 2015. The respect accorded to education, and high levels of education in particular, has considerably waned. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • In his studies on farmer behaviour, he found that the most wealthy farmers had higher levels of education than those who were not successful.
  • Those with university education would live in up market areas. But it also depended on the level of university education, and the professional course or degree that you obtained.
  • Greed for public resources has overtaken education as an important principle and element of a better life. High level of education is no longer a guarantee to a high quality of life.
  • Wealth acquired through plunder of public resources has replaced high level of education as a status symbol. Once you are employed in the public sector, you have arrived!

At the university in the 1980s, our lecturer in research methods gave the class literature on development and people’s incomes.

He requested everyone to identify and discuss the occupations that would give someone the highest level of income both in rural and urban Kenya.

He also requested the class to explain how, if at all, levels of education correlated with income levels.

There was consensus that level of education correlated in a significant manner with people’s incomes. Except one lady, everyone else noted that ‘the higher the education level, the higher the income’.

The lady was quiet throughout the discussion. She was Asian. Asked what she thought, she simply said her parents were business people: She was keen to venture into business.

Everyone argued that education was important in all occupations including farming. In fact, this was revealed in yet another set of literature on rural development pioneered by Prof. Philip Mbithi.

RESIDENTIAL DIFFERENCES

In his studies on farmer behaviour, he found that the most wealthy farmers had higher levels of education than those who were not successful.

Our class discussion revealed that the levels of education and type of degree held also dictated where one lived in Nairobi.

Colleagues in my class observed that those without secondary education tended to live in Dandora, Korogocho, Mathare, and Kibera.

Areas like Kangemi and Kawangware were residential areas for original inhabitants; they had neither sold their land nor built rental houses.

Secondary education would allow one to rent a house in Umoja.

Those with university education would live in up market areas. But it also depended on the level of university education, and the professional course or degree that you obtained.

Doctors and those with degrees in commerce would live in South B and South C. They had higher salaries than their counterparts with Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees. These often lived in Buruburu.

EMERGENT THINKING
The 1990s changed all this.

In the early 1990s I started teaching at the University. I began teaching the same class on research methods using a curriculum that had not changed much.

Only the text books and articles that were a mandatory teaching had changed.

I decided to ask my students the same question that we were asked in the 1980s. However, I introduced something new.

I asked them to read the literature, identify, and rank order the variables and occupations that they thought would give someone the highest monthly income.

A majority of students mentioned private business such as retail trade. Others mentioned employment by NGOs and in the private sector and no one identified the public sector as a source of high income.

There were very few students who identified high level of education as a source of high income. I found this strange and asked the students to explain further.

DRAMATIC TURN

Without exception, they pointed out that they thought education did not matter. Those who were selling mitumba or second hand clothes (very popular with the middle class in the 1990s because of austerity measures) were earning better than those employed.

By this time, settlement pattern in Nairobi had considerably changed. Dandora was the first point of housing for those with first degree but jobless.

Rents in Umoja had gone up; those with secondary education had to move out to Dandora. Those with Arts and Science degrees began to settle in Umoja and Zimmerman. Some Doctors also found it difficult to access up market areas.

Up market areas were now a preserve for those in the corporate world. Only those in private corporations and multinationals could afford rents in these areas.

They certainly had high levels of education to have gained a footing in these corporations.

On the basis of these findings, I made it a habit to track students thinking on income levels, occupations and levels of education.
Dramatic turn – no mention of education

HIGH RENTS
Things took a dramatic turn between 2003 and 2006 when I asked graduate students to answer the same questions.

Many pointed out that employment in the public sector, followed by private business, were better in terms of income.

This did not need a lot of explaining. The students were categorical that friends with lower levels of education were doing very well in terms of wealth in the public sector.

They were categorical that those working in certain ministries such as Lands, Roads and Public Works, and Local Government and municipalities were doing better than many doctors, professors, and even bankers.

They also explained that not everyone with a high level of education could afford to live in upmarket Nairobi. The rents were too high for them.

Ironically, property prices in up market areas were rising fast. Some of those buying the property included those working in ministries and other public institutions.

LAUGHED IT OFF
All this shows that by the middle of 2000s, education level was no longer an indicator of high income. Neither was employment by an NGO or in banking and the corporate world in general.

These were competing with the public sector as the employer of choice and source of high income.

In 2014 I began the ritual again. This time, my respondent group (quite different from the previous ones) identified ‘supplying goods and services’ to the public institutions including county governments and government ministries.

They specifically said this is where to make money.

Asked whether it is true that the higher the level of education, the higher the level of income, all members of the group simply laughed. They could not see this correlation.

To them, the level of education is a none issue. In their view, there are many people with low levels of education but have accumulated enormous amount of wealth owing to their connections to the public sector.

Although they cautioned that there is no significant relationship between level of education and income, they were quick to point out that the ‘rich now want to have a degree in order to show off’.

SETTLEMENT PATTERN

The ‘rich by night’ individuals have enrolled for degree programmes.

It is of course debatable whether the ‘rich by night individuals’ have got the time to attend class or whether they hire someone to listen and take notes for them.

The quality of education in some of the mushrooming universities is a story for another day.

What comes out of these discussions since the early 2000s is that education has been diminishing in importance as people turn to illicit sources of wealth.

The respect accorded to education, and high levels of education in particular, has considerably waned.

Greed for public resources has overtaken education as an important principle and element of a better life. High level of education is no longer a guarantee to a high quality of life.

The settlement pattern in Nairobi has also radically changed. Those with low levels of education have replaced those with high levels of education in upmarket areas.

STATUS SYMBOL

Of course they do this displacement because of acquiring wealth in the public sector where there is limited sense of accountability.

Wealth acquired through plunder of public resources has replaced high level of education as a status symbol. Once you are employed in the public sector, you have arrived!

There are opportunities everywhere for making money. Apparently what is referred to as an opportunity for making money is what we associate with greed, corruption and waste.

Unfortunately, our development as a nation is predicated on quality and skilled human resource.

It may be difficult to build a skilled and highly competent human resource to support our development programmes if we do not begin giving value to high levels of education.

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