Why paper qualifications are not enough


In 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), appointed Joichi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist, as its fourth Media Lab director.

The MIT Media Lab is known for its globally innovative research reputation whose high-technology demonstrations have not only changed the course of digital development but given direction to the future of digital society.

Although Ito attended two American universities, he never graduated. He is simply a talented and competent person. But such an appointment would not happen in Kenya. Reason? He has no papers to prove his worth.

The entire public sector is basing its selection on paper qualifications. Promotions to senior positions are pegged on graduate studies without paying attention to experience and performance.

Universities are requiring their teaching staff to acquire advanced degrees. Politicians, too, want paper qualifications in the event the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission changes the 2017 election rules. This in turn is creating pressure at institutions of higher learning to the extent that some universities are offering questionable degree programmes.


We are making mistakes by becoming too prescriptive on educational requirements for promotions in the public sector or any form of advancement – like running for an office.

If the media today, for example, imposes the degree rule like in the public sector, we shall lose some of the most prolific writers. We shall be wrong if we attribute the less than average performance of the Members of County Assemblies and some Members of Parliament to lack of education.

The problem is not education but the corruption around electioneering in Kenya where people with a poor past record cleanse their name by buying their way into leadership positions. We failed to deal with this problem when we did not comprehensively implement Chapter Six (Leadership and Integrity) of the Constitution.

We are also wrongly assuming that only PhDs will have the competence to teach at universities. Indeed, a PhD is an essential tool of a knowledge economy and largely meant for those seeking greater depth of knowledge in a narrow specific area.

With the advent of technology – especially with the Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) – the future of teaching is drastically being transformed. In Moocs, only the best get to teach and disseminate knowledge to millions. It is possible that in teaching we have naturals that could be irreplaceable. Some of the best universities globally have retained these naturals in spite of the fact that they lack PhDs.

Learning does not only take place in classrooms anymore. This is the very reason that we need to carefully evaluate some of our policy pronouncements that could possibly hurt the economy in the days to come.

None of these policy pronouncement really addresses the glaring dichotomy of learning in Africa. What we learn in school has little relevance on how we process information. The learning process is at variance with our beliefs, schemas and ideas.

Whilst the general public thinks that an education will help our politicians legislate better, a politician sees the degree as a means to an end. The consciousness and recognition of common values (if they are not there we adopt some) and an understanding of our personal philosophies are very important before framing the learning process.

It may surprise you to know that the term “corruption” means many things to many people in Kenya. We rarely read from the same script simply because we have no common understanding of values that will form the basis of learning. If we managed to develop this foundation of learning, it would not matter whether one has a degree or not in order to take up a position of leadership.

The love for paper qualification is more likely to impact on our collective performance if that becomes the basis for selection. There have been cases where people with excellent paper qualifications are preferred for positions of responsibility, but the corresponding performance is lacking.

This perhaps explains why it is rare to hear of any Kenyan who has taken responsibility for their actions. Some of the best brains in Kenya’s ICT landscape, for example, do not have the paper qualifications but are globally recognised for their contributions to the sector especially during the formative stages of ICT development. There is need to strike a balance between paper qualifications and competence.

Peter Drucker said, “Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach.”
Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication