ECONOMIC MATTERS : Tanzania’s higher education system is too rigid

Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Vocational Training ,Prof Joyce Ndalichako

What you need to know:

  • When implemented, academic certificates issued by any college or university registered in the region will be recognised by all member states. This is an important development. It will increase labour mobility within the region and move the EAC into deeper and stronger integration.

At the East African Community (EAC) heads of states meeting that took place in Dar es Salaam in May of this year, member countries agreed to harmonise higher education curricula. When implemented, academic certificates issued by any college or university registered in the region will be recognised by all member states. This is an important development. It will increase labour mobility within the region and move the EAC into deeper and stronger integration.

Tanzania should take this opportunity not only to examine its curricula, but also to make a careful, purposeful, objective (nonpolitical) examination of its higher education system. Tanzania’s higher education system does not match the dynamic market system which is becoming increasingly competitive and dynamic as consumer preferences, technologies, and resource supplies constantly change.

The current education system may have been adequate when the country was pursuing ujamaa policy (socialism), but it is too rigid for the present day market economy.

A starting point in examining the current education system is at the transition from secondary school (Ordinary Level) to high school (Advanced Level). Requiring students to have a “combination” of three subjects based on a single exam has the high potential of locking them into a field of little interest to them and one that is not marketable. In other words, it has the likelihood of denying them the opportunity to study what they actually want to study.

During the ujamaa era when the economy was guided through central planning, the government and its organizations were, by and large, the sole employer of college and university graduates.

The government had long-term development plans which included projections for having specific numbers of graduates for various government and government-related jobs.

The government decided which students would continue for higher education, which schools they would attend, and what subjects they would study. Eventually, the government also decided what jobs those who graduated would get, where they would be located (geographically), and how much they would be paid. People graduating from colleges in the 1970s, 1980s, and even early 1990s, knew almost nothing about writing a resume or going through a rigorous job application process. It was taken for granted that the government would give you a job. By the way, that attitude was not unique since that is how socialism works.

Of course, Tanzania is no longer a socialist country nor is it intending to go back to socialism. As such, not even education majors or people graduating from medical schools are guaranteed jobs by the government, even when government loans seem to favour certain areas of study. As harsh as it may sound, in a market economy, there is rarely a legitimate reason for anyone to expect a guaranteed job with the government. Moreover, even government jobs, whether in education, medicine, engineering or any other field, must be sought through a transparent application process and won competitively.

Currently, almost 70 percent of those employed in the formal sector are working in the private sector and given the dynamic nature of the economy, it is expected that most young people today would, on average, change careers at least three times.

The reality is that the private sector seeks graduates who have broad theoretical and practical knowledge, even in specialised fields, and are easily trainable. The problem, however, is that Tanzania’s education system has remained rigid.

The current education system, specifically as students move from O-Level to A-Level, locks students into specific fields too soon. Too much emphasis is placed on the results of Form IV national exams in determining one’s future.

Instructions from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology require that a high school applicant “must choose a combination in which they have passed (ie D or better) in all three combinations subjects and with total points between 3 (ie AAA) and 10 (ie CCD) inclusive.” It is not clear how this requirement is met for a subject like economics which is not taught at Ordinary Level but is taught in advanced level.

More importantly, however, is that a student who, for example, who did poorly in the Form IV biology exam may still catch up in that subject and successfully pursue a medical degree if that was his or her goal. Moreover, in selecting combinations no consideration is given to how a student was progressing, overall, in his or her subjects in regular exams. The education system needs to be flexible enough so that even after entering college or university, students can switch majors.

Of course, a flexible education system will create uncertainty for schools and colleges as supply will need to respond to demand, instead of having demand simply respond to supply. But for schools and colleges to provide relevant education, they must be dynamic and prepared to respond to shifts in demand for courses. In other words, colleges must also be prepared to respond to market forces.

The current education system is indeed quite easy to implement, as it is prescriptive and, thus, predictable, but its effectiveness for a market economy is limited. In addition, it puts Tanzanian graduates at a disadvantage in competing for jobs with graduates from other countries in the East African Community.

The author is professor of Economics, La Salle University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.