SPECIAL REPORT : Worrying trends of education in Tanzania as illiteracy expands

Sunday January 08 2017
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Form Three students of Viwandani Secondary School in Dodoma Municipality prepare for terminal examinations. Dodoma is one of the regions whose academic performance remains low. PHOTO|FILE

For someone who not only witnessed but was directly involved in this campaign, it is depressing as well as distressing to note that since that time education in Tanzania has taken a precipitous nosedive.

Not only has there been considerable relapse into illiteracy and an increase in illiterate adults but there is now a rising number of young people completing secondary schools without mastering the 3Rs. The literacy rate for youth (15–24) stands at 76.5 per cent for males while for females it is at 72.8 per cent. Overall the rate has fallen from a 90.4 per cent literacy rate in 1986, and IndexMundi now reports it at the rate of 67.8 per cent; a dramatic fall of 23 per cent.

The overall female rate reported at 60.8 per cent while the male rate stands at 75.5 per cent. As of 2012, the average Education Expectancy stood at 9 years and Education Expenditure at 6.2 per cent of GDP.

The story is not much different in the formal schools. According to Sumra and Katabaro (2014) two decades of efforts have not made a significant difference in the education levels of the adult population. According to PHC 2012, the highest level of education attained after primary school is quite low: Secondary level (14 per cent), post-secondary training (0.8 per cent) and university level (2.3 per cent ) (NBS 2014). In Dar es Salaam, for example, the proportion of people with university education dropped from 2.9 per cent in 2000/01 to 2.6 per cent in 2007.

The proportion of adults with no education has remained stagnant at around 28 per cent during the same period. Post-primary education has clearly not been able to keep pace with the expansion of the population, and even less with the demands of a modern economy (Sumra

and Katabaro 2014). In their comprehensive study, they noted that:


Since the middle of the previous decade,the failure rate among Standard VII primary and Form IV secondary graduates who sat for their respective leaving examinations has been growing, from an average of less than 50 per cent to close to an average of 80 per cent in the last couple of years. In the 2012 Form IV results, for example, 60 per cent of those who sat for the exams obtained zero division; another 20 per cent obtained division IV. This means that 80 per cent of Form IV leavers failed (since division IV is also categorised as failure).

In that study the authors also noted that with the sustained high population growth rate and, therefore, a growing number of children requiring education, a higher levels of investment in education was necessary. However such investment should not only target growing enrolment rates but should be directed to the improvement of the quality of education, in particular. They concluded that failure to improve the quality of education would deny the country an educated and effective labour force. (Sumra and Katabaro 2014; URT/BEST 2001–2013).

In an attempt to explain this dismal state of education, Sumra and Katabaro advance two major problems to explain the deterioration. One is the high attrition rates in primary education where enrolment rate stood at 90 per cent while completion rate was at 54 per cent particularly among low income and female-headed families. The second problem was identified as the low enrolment rate in secondary and tertiary education in comparison with other countries at the same level of development. Unfortunately this conclusion begs the question; why is it that the government has failed to ensure that those who register for primary education complete the cycle and why have resources not been forthcoming to underwrite higher levels of enrolment in higher education.

The answer lies in lack of ‘political will’. We argue in this paper that education has remained a low or even negative priority area mainly because the ruling elites have discovered over time that a relatively uneducated public is a fertile source of votes particularly in support of the long ruling party which thrives on continuity rather than change. Perhaps for the same reason official voter and civic education have been neglected left to NGOs and CSOs.

The same applies to freedom of information. A vibrant, free and investigative media is likely to embrace change and is therefore considered inimical to the state and bad for elections. While education is deliberately starved of resources, the media is systematically suppressed to ensure that the very same ill-educated public remains ill-informed/dis-informed on issues that can influence their choice in elections. Cynically, investment in ignorance yields high dividends in terms of votes especially for ruling parties and is probably responsible for the longevity of dominant parties.

The Systemic Reproduction of Ignorance

In this section we will examine the evidence attesting to what I have described as the systematic reproduction of ignorance through the provision of low quality education in the formal education system as well as the systematic suppression of freedom of expression through tight control of the media with stiff penalties. An examination of the state of education in Primary education in terms of enrolment and transition rates; teaching staff; schools; facilities and inspection; pass rates and education financing reveals the following :

• Pass rates at primary school level have fluctuated wildly between 2004 and 2013 plummeting from a high of 70.5 per cent in 2006 down to 30.7 per cent in 2012.

• Student transition rates from primary to seconday schools stood at 59.9 per cent while from Form IV to V stood at 10.6 per cent. The nearly 60% who do not make it to secondary schools constitute the majority of voters on attaining voting age

• Teachers are inadequate at a pupil/teacher ratio of 1:43 and generally poorly equipped. Only 4.3 per cent of primary school teachers are university graduates.

• Schools are poorly equipped, classes inadequate with pupil classroom ratio at 1:72 (ideally 1:40) and pupil latrine ratios hovering around 1:52 (ideally 1:22.5). Only about 20% per cent primary schools have access to electricity.

• In 2012/13 only 16.3 per cent of primary schools were inspected instead of and ideal of the requirement that each institution be inspected at least twice every two years.

• The education sector has been receiving 16-20 per cent of the total national budget with primary education absorbing over 50 per cent of the allocation.

A comparison of this primary school data and particularly performance in the Std. VII examinations with party political patterns reveals some interesting relationships. Of particular significance is that there seems to be a correlation between primary school student performance and voter party choices in the region. The best performing regions have tended to vote for opposition parties while the lowest performing tend to vote for CCM. It should be borne in mind that students completing their primary school education in 2013 would be around the age of 14 reaching majority/voting age in 2017 and participating in the General Elections for the first time in 2020.

According to the 2013 data the top performing five regions in 2013 were: Dar es Salaam (75.2), Kilimanjaro (65.6), Iringa (65.2), Tanga (61.5) and Njombe (59.0). Going by the 2015 election results Dar es Salaam is now under UKAWA (the opposition coalition), Iringa Municipality. The bottom five were: Tabora (36.6), Simiyu (36.7), Mara (38.2), Dodoma (38.2) and Ruvuma (38.8). Data from the 2015 elections seems to confirm this pattern. Among the top performers, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro, Iringa (urban), Tanga(urban) are in the opposition while Njombe remains CCM territory. Among the bottom performers Tabora, Simiyu, Dodoma and Ruvuma remain under CCM while Mara, which has a history of vacillating politically, is now in the opposition at least by 40 per cent.

The Current Crisis in Education

We have seen that the school system essentially reproduces ignorant outputs. Whether this is by design or by default is a moot question. The result is a population of Tanzanians that is increasingly politically incompetent and which tends to vote for the ruling party largely out of poverty, ignorance or fear. This is essentially the source of the claim that CCM is dominant in the rural areas but weak in the urban areas. The rural areas not only have the number of votes (70 per cent) but also the average voter in the rural areas is much less educated and more susceptible to propaganda, bribery and intimidation. Moreover, the electoral process is designed and operated to manufacture legitimacy for the state simply by creating the illusion that competitive periodic elections in and of themselves produce free and fair results.

The process itself is the end game; not the underlying structures of poverty, inequality, illiteracy or fear among the citizens. In the short run this situation may seem to serve the interests of the ruling party but in the long run it is bound to completely ruin the education system in general. If this is coupled with the growing intolerance of freedom of expression and the suppression of access to information Tanzania is eventually to witness elections without informed choice.

Over the last few years there has been a growing awareness of the deteriorating quality of education in the country although the levels of understanding of the problem have been uneven and diverse. Some have identified the problem as underfunding of education; others have emphasized the inadequacy and quality of teachers and teaching facilities; others have looked at curricula and teaching and teaching programs; others have pointed at social inequality and the mushrooming of private schools.

Yet others have trivialized the blight and reduced it to grading systems (GPA or Divisions). Responses to the problems have tended to be partial addressing whatever problem happens to attract the highest attention at the time. At no time have these problems been approached holistically let alone being perceived as, together, constituting a crisis.

The fact remains that Tanzania has a major crisis on its hands. Education has been failing and will continue failing unless drastic measures are taken. Uwezo reports: “By the time they enter Standard 3, 100 per cent of children should have basic competencies in literacy and numeracy. The reality is that by Standard 3, 7 out of every 10 children cannot read basic Swahili, 9 out of every 10 children cannot read basic English, and 8 out of every 10 children cannot do basic mathematic”.

The report comes to a highly disturbing conclusion; “The stark reality is that, despite the enormous advances in education made possible by investing trillions of shillings each year, the vast majority of children in Tanzania are not learning.” Among the recommendations made by the Uwezo report is that responding effectively to the crisis requires doing things differently – not simply more of the same.

This calls for a different perspective – a political perspective which begins with the understanding that the ruling party can not institute fundamental changes in education because it has a vested interest in entrenching ignorance which is it’s major source of its electoral legitimacy. This is the causa causati of the failure of many educational reforms.

The Way Forward

A quick review of the educational dimensions of the national risk will reveal important similarities with the same problems that are currently afflicting Tanzania’s education system in almost all dimensions, albeit, with the necessary differences between the two countries, times and concrete historical circumstances. Issues such as falling behind in international comparisons; declining functional literacy; declining performance by secondary schools students; gifted students not matching their tested abilities (in Tanzania they have virtually disappeared); etc. are high on the agenda of any discussion on the plight of education in the country. Among the fundamental recommendations of the US Commission is what they call ‘basics’ which; “included four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, three years of social studies, and half a year of computer science in America’s high schools”

In my view, the situation in Tanzania calls for a shared national awareness and acknowledgement of the existence of the crisis in education and to obtain a consensus on its nature, manifestations and dynamics. This is of critical importance because there is considerable denial on the existence of a crisis particularly on the part of the incumbent government. Many would perhaps be willing to accept that there are serious problems in the education sector as a whole but few are prepared to admit that these ‘serious problems’ are of such a magnitude as to constitute a crisis.

The ruling party and its government, in particular, have no incentive and much less political will, to acknowledge the existence of a crisis This is precisely because over the last fifty or so years the party has presided over the process that has produced the crisis that it benefits from. Secondly, is the impunity arising from the fear of the party and government to expose their own willful criminal neglect of education.

Thirdly such a commission is not in the interest of the ruling party because, as happened in the constitution making process, the commission would have the spill-over effect enlightening and probably politicising people. Therefore a genuine effort must be organised and driven by a combination of parliament and organised civil society. In this context, the commission is likely to be effective if the following conditions are observed:

• The Commission must be established by an Act of Parliament after a thoroughgoing national dialogue on the magnitude of the crisis and its various dimensions and obtaining consensus on the necessity to confront the crisis.

• The commission must, as much as possible, be impartial and non-partisan. It must be guided by the long-term national interests of the country as agreed in the national dialogue.

• The commission must be as diverse as possible but leaning more towards education professionals (preferably those who have not been involved in making or implementing education policy).

• The recommendations must articulate and elaborate a clear national policy on education, including specifying national goals on education which should be more output rather than input focused. These goals should be binding on all political parties which may come to power.

• The Commission should endeavour to draw upon similar initiatives and experiences in Africa and beyond and to draw lessons from the best practices from these countries.

Mwesiga Baregu is Professor of Political Science at the St Augustine University of Tanzania (Saut) in Mwanza City.