The World Bank in 2014 painted an encouraging picture of education internationally, particularly in developing countries. It was estimated that since the turn of the millennium, 50 million children had gained access to basic education. These efforts were spurred by countries implementing policies to facilitate universal access to basic education. However, it emerged that the growth was mainly quantitative rather than qualitative. The report noted that 250 million children at the time were not able to read or do basic maths, even after spending more than 3 years in school. Delivery of quality education in schools has lagged behind even as enrolment numbers rise. This disparity shows that most students are not receiving an education that adequately prepares them to tackle professional and social issues, either locally or internationally, as schools focus more on growing their numbers rather than producing better students.
In 2016, Payscale conducted a survey in the United States, sampling 76,000 participants, to find out how prepared recent university graduates were for the job market. The results revealed that there was a dissonance between graduates’ perceptions of their own readiness and employers’ feelings towards the same. 90% of the surveyed graduates were of the opinion that they were well prepared for their future jobs. As for the employers, 56% of those sampled said that three fifths of new graduates lacked critical thinking skills and attention to detail, 44% found fault with the graduates’ writing proficiency, and 39% thought that job seekers had poor public speaking skills. Closer home, a study by The East African showed that in Kenya, 51% of graduates lacked employability skills and technical mastery of whatever field in which they had studied. It further said that these students were not ready for the job market. The most disturbing finding of this study isn’t that students lacked the actual skills required in the market but that a majority of them didn’t even know it.
This then raises the question; what qualities must graduates possess to thrive in today’s society?
To begin with, all graduates need to have the technical skills required in their area of specialization. These should be up to date and focused not only on the current industry trends but also on any anticipated future innovations. This is particularly important, considering the dynamic and fast paced nature of the present world. This emphasis on industry trends means students’ skills must be relevant by the time they graduate and can easily adapt to any future industry shifts. In addition to technical skills, technological and innovation knowhow is key. With an ever changing tech space that is been integrated into every industry, students must have an adequate grasp of what is required of them technologically and understand any major innovations in their fields of operation.
Unfortunately, technical and technological skills can only take you so far. As the Payscale survey showed, most employers’ qualms concerned not just technical but the soft skills that students were felt to be lacking. The ones most mentioned included attention to detail, critical thinking, writing proficiency and public speaking ability. Speaking during the launch of Kenyatta University “School-Work Induction Program,” in 2014, Prof. Olive Mugenda told participants that employers required more from potential employees than just the ability to do one’s job; they also considered communication ability, commitment, presentation skills and flexibility.
Understanding what employers want is only the first step. The trick now is how to identify whether your education is preparing you adequately to become a productive and successful member of humanity. Two things are key when it comes to identifying the quality of education: the curriculum and the teachers. Initially, in Kenya, the quality of a course was measured by its content, training and learners’ outcomes. Training here refers to the art or science of teaching, focusing on teaching methods and performance outcomes of these methods. By this definition, a good curriculum was one which had relevant in-depth content and applied appropriate teaching methods to produce the best performance from students. However, this has changed to a more procedural approach. The course is examined based on all the facets that make the learning experience worthwhile. This approach considers not just the quality of information but also whether it meets students’ current needs, both professionally and socially. This involves integrating into the curriculum additional content meant to produce holistic individuals. What all this means is that soft skills such as people skills, ethics, and ways of developing students’ emotional intelligence are now mandated parts of learning. Also new to the system is the inclusion of activities to provide practical work experience to students. Among them are work induction programs, internships and apprenticeships. Other additions include increased interaction between the learner and the teacher and use of data collected over time to improve the course and the subsequent learning outcome.
The quality of teachers is just as important as the curriculum, and it is measured mainly through the performance of their students especially by examining test scores. This is called value-added analysis, whereby a good teacher is one whose students consistently get high marks. The best performing schools in South Korea recruit their teachers from among the top 5% cohort of a graduating year. In Hong Kong and Singapore, it is the top 30%. It’s no wonder then that these countries appear at the top of most international education rankings. According to the 2014 Pearson Global Report on Education, South Korea was first, while Singapore and Hong Kong came in fourth and fifth respectively. The report used two metrics to come up with the ranking: cognitive skills and educational attainment. For cognitive skills the underlying categories are reading, math and science while education attainment considers literacy level and graduation rates.
Ultimately, education remains a basic need and everyone has the right to receiving it. However, it’s about time we embraced a system that produces ideal candidates, who are ready for the world by the time they leave university or college. We owe it to our country to strive for the best quality possible now. As UNICEF describes it, education is the most powerful investment in our future.