OPINION: Quality education is still a far-off dream in Tanzania

Thursday January 10 2019

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

It was somewhat consternating to learn from the Chief Justice, Professor Ibrahim Juma, that 800 potential graduate lawmakers were not employable because they could not speak or write ‘good’ English.

This could just be the tip of the iceberg, reflecting a much bigger problem in our education system. Perhaps – but only ‘perhaps’ – are there deliberate moves to sweep this problem under the carpet?

In any case: what is really wrong with our education system? How come a graduate in Law studies fails to communicate in English, one of the country’s official languages, pray?

Do we know how many of our varsity graduates in different fields like Medicine and Engineering also have similar problems – and are, therefore, unemployable?

Questions seriously need to be asked; how, for example, did these ‘graduates’ pass their university exams, and were able to graduate? Is this not an indication that universities are churning out even weak students so as to claim high graduation rates? What is the Tanzania Commission of Universities doing about this? But more importantly: how did such ‘graduates’ enter institutions of higher learning in the first place?

Answers to these questions are pertinent in solving the problem of quality education.


Education system is based on the ‘Four E’s. The first E is about ‘Expansion’ – and the Ministry of Education (MoE) has done a commendable job in expanding school enrollment. We are currently looking at 93 per cent primary school enrollment. This is really commendable.

The second E is for ‘Equity,’ where minority groups are also given an equal opportunity. Once again, MoE has done a commendable job, and I don’t think we have a major issue in equity. The third E is for ‘Excellence,’ meaning quality education. This is our main problem. MoE is still groping around for a tangible strategy, and quality education is still elusive.

The fourth E is ‘Employable’ – and is directly associated with the third E: quality education.

So: are our varsity grads employable as we move to become a semi-industrialised, middle-income country by 2025? Has there been research that explored the issue of graduates employability?

I wish I had solutions for the last two ‘E’s; but what is needed is a wide public debate on this with experts dialoguing to provide a framework of what the MoE should do: the way forward. This is not happening, and one would be forgiven to blame the Education ministry for seemingly sweeping this national problem under a tattered carpet.

Tanzania has a very low median age, with more than 45 per cent of the population under 15 years, and another 50 per cent between 15 and 64. With such demography, there is no room for mistakes in the quality of education provided to our youth.

Mistakes will haunt us for generations to come.

One important challenge to development is in the ability to (directly or indirectly) reinforce human capital – thereby positively impacting economic growth, and ultimately, poverty reduction. After all, the links between education and economic growth, income distribution and poverty reduction are well established.

The centrality of any education system is the teacher, who is in daily contact with the student. When a teacher is compromised, effective teaching is likewise compromised – and the education quality drops.

There is a real need of a paradigm shift: rethinking about the balance between quality and quantity.

In institutions of higher learning, there’s too much political pressure. Top managements are politically-appointed at the pleasure of political bosses – thus compromising honesty and professionalism.

I started as a tutorial assistant at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas), and when I retired at 60, I was a full professor. So, I well-understand the academic metamorphosis one undergoes.

The need to have ‘thoroughly-cooked’ academic staff cannot be overemphasized...

A teacher who is concerned about education quality by being stringent and demanding hard work from students is seen as a bully. Curriculum is sometimes changed so that there is no failure – and vice chancellors are judged by how many students graduate rather than their quality.

Unfortunately, university professors are preaching rather than teaching, and market forces are replacing creative thinkers.

There are proven interventions that have a positive impact, such as enrolling children in school, keeping attendance rates high, and reducing dropouts. But, clearly there is also the need to increase competitiveness by rewarding excelling students, and providing merit-based rewards like scholarships.

Another important area to invest in is to decrease the pupil/teacher ratio, and motivate teachers through better housing, remuneration, etc.

Also, providing supplemental or remedial instruction may help in the short term.

I sincerely hope that someone in the Ministry of Education will read this piece and act as appropriate. Maintaining the status quo – or, worse still: defending the current status – is a grave mistake that could put us on an impoverishment trajectory that can’t be reversed in the short run.

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired MUHAS professor. His career spans over 40 years in academia, research and public health. He has authored over 100 publications. He resides in Canada.