Image source in2eastafrica.net
In recent years we have seen numerous commentaries in newspapers and on television about the declining quality of education in Tanzania. We have heard or read about concerns, particularly from foreign investors and various other private sector players with regards to some graduates of tertiary and higher institutions of learning not being adequately equipped with skills required by industry. Universities have argued that the said decline in the standard of university education is due, in part, to deterioration in the educational system starting with basic education at primary and secondary school levels. Consequently, universities have had to lower their entry requirements but at the risk of sabotaging their own integrity as prestigious academic institutions. While this discussion and contemplation is going on, the problem is having telling impact on people and the economy. Sadly, there is considerable time lag before the impact of a poor education system becomes evident while reversing the trend also requires a number of years before positive changes can be seen.
When people complain about poor education quality, it means that they feel and see that education or training they get does not meet their expectations. Like beauty, quality is in the eyes of the beholder. These complaints are inextricably linked to the core basis of education itself. Education is never provided in a vacuum. For one thing it is expensive. Its requirement of particularly huge financial resources puts considerable economic strain on even nations that are very strong economically. For poor countries such as Tanzania the situation is even more serious. It means, therefore, that greater caution and care in planning and implementing educational change must be exercised so that desired benefits can be achieved and the expenditure can be justified.
Education is always provided within the context and in line with aspirations of a particular society. It is a vehicle for transforming people's lives by creating opportunities for enhancing living standards in a society and paving the way for technological development as backup for future development. Education creates new awareness causing people to change values, attitudes, behavior and actions. In this context it is not only about gaining higher and higher qualifications as we keep witnessing. Rather, it is about equipping people to transform their lives through skills and therefore more effectively participate in development activities. Unfortunately, there are times when some people wrongly think that education is only about being in secondary school and thereafter pursuing college or university courses.
It is not surprising that we always talk of those who have not been selected to higher level of education as having failed. This is the premise under which education is being provided in Tanzania today. It is an elitist approach that raises a number of questions. For example, to which country or even planet should we send those who fail? Nobody needs these condemned people who are labeled failures. Society also does not need failures. Not even vocational training, which was originally conceived to provide occupational skills so as to enhance performance and improve livelihood. It would appear that the purpose of graduating our education system at various exit levels is simply meant to screen further and further for students who can go up further on the educational ladder, preferably to university level.
The standards are so set as to ensure acquisition of higher education levels, and those who do not make it are written off as failures. But is this really the way our education ought to go? Do we even have the resources to afford such luxury? Some of the developed countries have had universities and colleges for over five centuries and yet not every working adult has a university degree. In some cases a university degree is not even desirable. Is the elitist education system of ours, which aims primarily for higher and higher education while much of the nation is struggling with illiteracy the best way to move the nation forward and the best way to use our meagre national resources? How can we use education to make the majority of our people capable of effectively participating in development so that they can raise their standard of living? Our education system is apparently based on the needs of only one stakeholder namely higher education. What about the community, vocational training, private sector, NGOs and so on? Are the needs of these other stakeholders simply incidental? Surely, there should be a place for higher education but there should be a place for other needs as well.
In order for education to be transformational, any particular educational level should be purposely defined to carry out a particular holistic meaning within the context of our society and the world at large. Universal education, at whatever level we choose to fix it, must carry a particular meaning to our society. It should not be fixed arbitrarily. Among the factors that would dictate the fixing of a universal educational level would be the nation's ability to pay for education so as to enable every child of school going age to attend and successfully complete universal education. Another factor would be the need to meet demands of one's livelihood under increasingly complex circumstances, including technological development. This effectively means that education at this level must equip people with the versatility to cope with a whole range of ever changing demands. It must equip individuals with problem solving skills, technology, innovativeness and some form of critical thinking that would make them earn their own living and continue to make required changes for their own development. Education at this level must also enable individuals to move up the education ladder to higher education.
It is important to mention that on the one hand those who go on to pursue higher education have shown excellence in particular aspects of education. On the other hand, those who do not go on to further education are not failures either as they will have attained the educational standards required at that particular level to enable them manage a living. Thus, it ought to be presumed that those exiting at this level are sufficiently prepared to cope with and learn new ways of earning a living, and should be capable of either developing themselves or being developed to do various things. Such people are easily convertible to various forms of further development because they possess the education that enables them to do that. For example, they can be easily developed to start and run small businesses, become good people's representatives, census remuneration clerks, take up vocational occupational courses, participate in continuing learning by generating knowledge through their activities, etc.
These people are malleable and can be turned into pursuing different forms of livelihood because the level of education they will have attained will have prepared them in such a way. People who have failed cannot do this. An elitist education system prepares students only to move up the education ladder and not to fit them for life; any other benefits are simply incidental and not targeted. We have indeed seen this from those who have failed under the current education system. They are simply incapable of doing anything else. Under a holistic education system, people exiting at a particular level are meant to have achieved pre-determined "educational" standards or objectives, with meaning to society, so that the question of failures does not arise. Teaching and assessment under such a system must be designed to achieve different objectives from those of an elitist education system.
While under an elitist education system teaching and assessment are based on examinations, which primarily test recall ability of the student, teaching and assessment under a holistic education system are meant to ensure attainment of standards as set out in the curriculum. The standards correspond to meeting specific holistic needs as identified by key stakeholders. Various appropriate teaching methodologies are applied to ensure that student abilities are developed to the required standards. A holistic educational curriculum is designed differently from an elitist educational curriculum. While the development of a holistic educational curriculum will embrace the needs of various education stakeholders including educationists, the elitist curriculum will mostly be developed by educationists.
Our Education and Vocational Training ministry is now in the process of developing a new education policy. It is important that we re-think our education system as a whole with a view to ensuring the best use of the nation's meagre financial, human and material resources and make sure that the system effectively contributes to the development of individual Tanzanians and the larger nation. It is important to recognize that the pivotal unit of development in any country is the individual. A nation is a sum total of individuals. Ensuring that education develops individuals to fit them for the demands of national development is absolutely critical if our educational system is to be transformational.
The new education policy should, among other things, answer the question: "What should be the universal national education level and why?" The answer to this question will have a direct bearing on the way the nation moves towards meeting the challenges of the twenty first century. The policy should seek to make education the vehicle for transforming people's lives by integrating the various levels of "educational" qualifications with current and future national development needs. That would be education in context.