Since Education Secretary George Magoha’s recent diatribe against chasing a university degree instead of artisan training and certification, the debate has raged on social media and other platforms on the issue.
His remarks come as the government makes efforts to increase enrolment in technical colleges. To some, his remarks are spot-on: people are chasing degrees for prestige and ending up unemployed. To others, including myself, his remarks are elitist, and at the same time pedestrian.
Growing up, our parents pushed us to work hard so we could get good jobs that paid well, not to just get degrees. That is why many people were pushed into careers they never wanted.
Not many parents, for example, were okay with their children taking a literature degree, often asking “where will such a degree take you?” Did this change at some point? Did parents start telling their children to work and get degrees for prestige purposes? I do not think so.
People go to study to get jobs and earn a living.
They go after that which they believe will bring them a decent income. Postgraduate studies are more likely to be done for prestige purposes, but not at undergraduate, diploma or certificate level. But so far, even postgraduate studies have been pursued for purposes of getting a job, promotion or pay increase, not so much for prestige.
In the absence of a trace study on why things changed and more people started going after degrees, we are left to speculate. But our speculations should not be wild and uninformed, and especially not by the minister in charge of Education, who is academic to boot.
As earlier stated, young people will go for training or education that they believe will help them earn a decent income.
This belief is informed by what they see happening to people in their environment, from the job advertisements they see, and career advice from teachers and parents.
Therefore, it makes more sense to assume that the reason that many youths have been shunning technical and trade training, is that they have not seen it as a way of earning a decent income.
They have seen people with this kind of training in their environment struggle to make ends meet, parents and teachers give them examples of people in a trade who have amounted to nothing.
They have seen those with degrees among them prosper. They have seen companies advertise jobs asking for degrees, and not for trade training with experience.
And that is why they have chosen to go for a degree.
There is also the issue of supply and demand.
Over time, youth have gone for a degree and universities have churned out graduates by the thousands.
The result is that the market has become saturated with degree holders more than available jobs.
On the other hand, trade careers have been neglected over time, meaning fewer people are practising, and this is why their services are currently attracting premium fees.
The government’s drive to increase enrolment in technical and vocational colleges, and to generally encouraging young people to take up brown collar jobs needs to be informed by a deeper analysis of data and economic theory and thinking, not by anecdotal information.
It is important to create an environment where it is possible to sustainably earn a decent living from these jobs.
The writer is Communications and Publishing consultant in Nairobi.