Of stale degrees, a bloated industry
A picture of a middle-aged Zimbabwean selling bananas in graduation regalia was carried in a local daily paper captioned “desperate times”. Part of the description spelt out the qualifications of the guy, which were a Bachelor of Arts General Degree and a Special Honours in Philosophy.
It appears he has failed to get a job with his seemingly sophisticated qualifications, an indication of a crisis embedded in some certificates held by many who graduate annually. When a person fails to get a job with their initial qualification, the temptation is to go back to the lecture room and add more papers to their certificate pile.
By so doing, graduates are trying to look for a scapegoat to blame instead of confronting life head on and trying to create opportunities for themselves with their competencies, if there are any. Some degree programmes have been put under scrutiny for being devoid of productive competencies or tangible knowledge needed to create a business out of their qualifications.
Educationist and senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe`s Department of Technical Education Dr Peter Kwaira said there should be careful selection for degree programmes.
“When students enrol at universities, there should be a careful choice. One must have a sense of direction taking into account common trends at the time. Degrees should be there to match the needs of society,” Dr Kwaira said.
The economy has been mentioned in most debates as the key element ripping degrees of their weight and significance but the expert believes when opportunities are considerably fewer, it should inspire more calculative choices.
“Universities should feel challenged; if a programme is no longer attractive to both industry and the students then they should relook at the programmes. Some of them may need to be modified to meet modern needs,” said Dr Kwaira.
Creativity and willingness to engage with the industry even before graduating is said to be one way students can enhance their chances of getting opportunities on completion of their courses.
Besides industrial attachment, which is mandatory for most degree programmes, students should engage with their industry as it may open up opportunities for them, at both employment or even at an entrepreneurial level,” Dr Kwaira added.
Sadly, most students in institutions of higher education enrol in universities and gobble the theoretical content entirely disengaged from the industries they wish to play a part in.
This is why most are disoriented or do not know where to begin their search of livelihoods when they finally leave university. It gets worse when they are studying for a programme whose body of knowledge is undefined and vague.
The Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development concedes that there is need to relook at some programmes being offered at local institutions. Professor Amon Murwira, the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education said people need to understand the purpose degrees seek to achieve.
“Degree programmes have to be reviewed from time to time in terms of their content and their focus. Degrees are not done to get a gown and a certificate, but they are done to fit societal needs,” Prof Murwira said.
Decision making is critical as a degree choice goes beyond the catchy names some may command.
“Degrees by nature need to be reviewed from time to time. Of course there has been a tendency to continue with degrees that are not answering the problems of today or problems which may appear in the future. Doing a degree needs foresight or strategic intelligence of the future. One has to look at where society is going and what use certain knowledge will have within that trajectory,” Prof Murwira said.
Some syllabi being taught have outlived their usefulness and are now a liability.
“Degrees have a four or five year cycle but you find that some degrees have not been changed since the 1970s and you wonder who they are serving. There are certain degree programmes which need to be reviewed. It has to be a culture always to assess whether what we are doing is what will take Zimbabwe forward in the 21st century,” he said. He added; “Degrees have to fight for society and we have to move into the future when we are doing our degrees.”
Generic degrees should be remodelled to be useful to society.
“Every degree should have a body of knowledge useful to society, there must be an end in sight. You don’t study for the sake of studying. There should be a list of competencies which a person should have after finishing a degree programme. People cannot do degrees without competency, every degree must have a body of knowledge which universities certify,” said Prof Murwira.
Degrees should be acquired to help the country; not to be used as a begging bowl.
“Universities should be graduate production mills but it is a competency production mill. My worry is when a person graduates and they do not have a tangible competency. We must have graduates that have so much competency that they start industry in their line of competence,” Prof Murwira said.
Graduates should not sit on their gowns waiting for an opening within an imagined industry.
“If a person studies motor mechanics and they are good at it, they may not have to wait for a job to be given to them. The same thing should happen with any degree; so some graduates who are selling bananas it could be symbolic that the person might not have acquired enough competencies to be able to excel in their field. This is why we are talking about body of knowledge,” he said.
If a degree cannot be turned into either a product or a service, then its relevance becomes questionable.
“When a person studies a degree, say philosophy and they cannot offer it as a service and is not able to offer it as a service it means that the syllabus was not structured in a way that gives a person tangible competences that enables them to start the company of some sort. Any training must be able to produce goods and services,” said Prof Murwira.
According to him, once our education is calibrated with modern needs enterprise will follow.
“Industry is produced by us, as soon as our education has a body of knowledge then we will have people who are competent enough to start industries. People who did degrees owe us an industry. We have people who wait to get an opportunity in existing industry when there are people who wait for them to create industry,” Prof Murwira said.
During his time at the helm of the University Zimbabwe`s Geography and Environmental Science Department Prof Murwira transformed the Geography degree programme from obscurity to being one of the flagships on the continent.
“My team which I led, inherited a department which had falling student numbers, around 2012 there were around 20. This is because students vote by their feet and they do not want to study things that are useless,” he said.
The obtaining syllabus had not been changed in decades.
“We discovered that our syllabus was 42 years behind and the Geography which was being studied was so old to the point that it was useless to society. After having travelled the world and seen that our curriculum was stuck in the past, we had to embark on a massive modernisation programme,” said Prof Murwira.
Five undergraduate programmes and five postgraduate programmes based on Geographical Information Science and Earth Observation. The department of Geography at the University of Zimbabwe has changed into a continental force to reckon as the African Union is also utilising their facilities to train their personnel. With Prof Murwira leading higher and tertiary education development, a mop up is in the offing.
“A skills audit is currently underway, we are going to be reviewing degree programmes through research and we will have a result by April. The findings will be used to guide universities and colleges to modify their curricular,” Prof Murwira said.
Career guidance is key and parents should not send students to study programmes for their own social status.
“Parents must let their children choose things that excite them. Parents must not traumatise children, they must let their children choose what they want to pursue lest we have uninspired people within our workforce,” said Prof Murwira.
Among the degree programmes which have been chided by observers are humanities and some social sciences, which are considered to be difficult to convert into money. Experts in the field have maintained that the field is relevant even in the face of criticism. Professor Munyaradzi Mawere, a Professor in Social Anthropology said degrees like philosophy are important as they raise questions which inform other fields.
“Philosophy is the mother of all sciences, it raises new questions which inform the search of new knowledge in various fields,” Prof Mawere said.
He argued that humanities like philosophy are misunderstood.
“There is need for contemporary scholars to show the positive side of his programmes. They still have a role to play in the development of our society. We can`t afford to kill philosophy because once we kill philosophy, we have killed an arm that asks questions for other areas,” said Prof Mawere.
The publisher and writer argues that philosophy has helped him open up opportunities for himself.
“Personally I am using my philosophical stamina to ask questions in other fields and providing answers. This is why I am a publisher and a businessman,” Prof Mawere said.
The industry/graduates debate is as old as the egg and chicken debate. Schools of thought differ on whether graduates should enter a pre-established industry or they should create their own.
However, it seems there are some degree programmes which lack the inventive dynamic needed in the 21st century, hopefully the skills audit currently underway will identify those.