We will learn for free and by force
Members of the Capitalism In My City project reflect on the commodification of education in Kenya.
In Kenya, though 75 percent of the population is under 35, less than 5 percent of both young women and men are enrolled in post-secondary institutions. This is because it continues to be financially out of reach for most families, even while ostensibly “public.” What’s more, the costs of tertiary education are increasing exponentially, even while there is a reduction in both student loans and government funding for education. On another front, both teachers and student unions, catering, overwhelmingly, to public institutions, are victimized, surveilled, and compromised. Despite this, many youth continue to struggle for free quality education.
I studied in a public primary school, located around a slum area in Dagoretti, Nairobi. While a pupil at the school in 2007 (I was a class seven pupil), I remember a day when our head teacher walked in and kindly asked that we assemble outside the class. This was an abrupt meeting meant to address seven pupils only. When he began talking, he was full of anger and had a message for us to take to our parents at home, and it was that he “would no longer prepare and train bright students only for them to be poached by private schools.” Earlier that week, an incident in the school had left everyone angry and disappointed. It was during the third term and we were about to transition to become class eight candidates, when the head teacher of a private school adjacent to ours visited the parents of our best student and promised a free scholarship and other benefits. The headmaster succeeded in swaying our brilliant classmate away from our public school, which was seen not to have the standards for such a brilliant pupil. Not surprisingly, the following year after the announcement of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam results, this student was the leading candidate within Dagoretti constituency.
That incident has lived with me and changed the way I viewed education; we grew up believing that quality education could only be accessed in a private school and not a public school. Of course, the two entities are not the same, as one is clearly privileged and the other is not. Education quality is tied to currency and it is valued in the same manner industrial products are valued. Our society has been convinced by proponents of capitalism that commodification of education is a necessary evil for better education and sold the narrative that nothing good comes for free. So, in order to catch up in a rather “competitive” arena, we begun to pay extra fees for afters-school tuition and Saturday classes at our public school. That is how the strange relation of money and education was introduced to me at such a young age.
The legendary Jamaican reggae singer Richie Spice sung in one of his popular hit songs that, “if education is the key / then tell me why the people have to make it so expensive for we.” These words resonate with the reality of education in Kenya and take me again down memory lane, to another unforgettable moment in my primary school years. Our public school shared a compound with the Catholic Church, which had a sister national girl’s school for less privileged and brilliant girls. One day, as we approached the start of the KCPE national exams, the father (priest) and nuns of the Catholic Church came for a special prayer, which was done every year for KCPE candidates. After the prayer, during a speech by one of the sisters, maybe in a bid to excite and motivate us, the nun promised that any girl who got over 390 marks in the national examination would get a direct opportunity to go to their school, which was for brilliant and underprivileged girls. Come late 2008, when the results were announced and our leading candidate girl had 409 out of 500 marks, it was received by celebrations in our constituency. Because of the nun’s speech it was then expected that the girl would join the said national school, but the entry marks were suddenly moved to 415 marks—the Catholic Church did not honor its promise and she never joined. The majority of students with such marks only came from private schools; these were students with middle class backgrounds, yet the school was in the center of a slum and children from the area never went there! It was not a matter of the brilliant versus the foolish, but the rich against the poor. Education never looked the same again to me, and it was not the middle ground it was proclaimed to be.
Fast forward today, and I am university student and the realities are much worse. Education is hyper-commodified in a way that has come to be seen as natural and normal. It is a place where administrators are bosses, students are customers, and faculty staff are employees. Everyone has a value attached to him/her. The university and other institutions of higher learning forgot long time ago that its first task was to educate students. Instead it turned them into customers, who when they lack school funds, are considered of no benefit to the institution. The university is managed like an enterprise with specialists who apply business models at every level of functioning of the institution. The accelerated decrease of government funding as of 2020 in Kenya, has made institutions come with very sneaky ways to raise funds—the victim is the student.
Education in Kenya has been caught up in the neo-liberal crisis, where it has been modelled after the values of the free market, prioritizing efficiency and customer satisfaction, while treating education as a commercial transaction. Since 1980s, free market forces have dominated every sector in the world including education. The effects continue to persist to date, with increasing inequalities and privatization. As students we have become victims of the narrative that the purpose of education is to graduate and get a job. This accepted process has left us shortchanged and configured us as consumers to please rather than characters to build.
My siblings and I went to a community private school, yet our parents are public school teachers. My mother always insisted and worked towards us having to go through what she called “good schools” throughout primary, secondary, and university. She then expects us to go for master’s and Ph.D. studies preferably in prestigious universities outside the country. She is a waged worker who has invested all her peanut wages in our schooling, and then went to the extent of taking up loans to make sure we got through secondary and university education. She is still paying some of those loans to date. Some bank employees still see her as a potential client and often call her for new loans. She has spent all her earnings and got into debt because the state failed to provide quality education for her children, a public utility that all citizens are entitled to. The interesting bit, however, was that she could not bear enrolling us in public schools yet she is a public school teacher. She understands how the quality of education is compromised.
My mother is paying loans to date. My brothers will pay back the Higher Education Loans Board loans after graduating. Going through the whole education system in this Limited Company called Kenya makes people perpetual debt slaves. There are no employment opportunities, so many graduates have the debt hanging on their backs for life as the interest rates keep accumulating. Worse still, university students are hopping from one digital loan to another as a means of survival in the tertiary institutions.
The children of unwaged workers and those with very meager wages will suffer the same fate as they go through schools with very poor conditions. The teachers who are also workers and who are loathed by the system are also not spared from this alienation, as their union is defunct and is constantly facing bids to scuttle it. Despite their poor salaries, they have not been excluded from the privatization of healthcare. Also, though they have engaged in perennial strikes to call for an increase in wages, with every little increase, the state levies more taxes making the real value of a wage increase effectively zero. Some of the key leaders of the union have also been coopted into the political space with an intention to make the union less militant.
A huge chunk of policies in the education sector are sinister roadside declarations that are signed into law without the consultation of parents, teachers, and learners. Decisions are made without involving the very people they are going to impact. What’s more, public school spaces have been under attack by landgrabbers always on the lookout for public spaces to steal. Children lose playgrounds and even community schools to people who want to put up private schools or other private setups. Because of this, their expression is curtailed from that very early stage of growth, because they are denied every single space that they have to play.
During this pandemic, learners across the country have been subjected to online learning and parents subjected to paying school fees as usual. This move has deliberately alienated a lot of learners from the process because most if not all do not have reliable access to internet or even the gadgets required to learn. The environment learners are in at this time when people have lost income and livelihoods is too harsh to support learning. The infrastructure people have been subjected to—such as poor and largely indecent housing—makes learning very hard. For some who have access, the quality of education is even more compromised because the teachers do not have adequate or any capacity at all to efficiently facilitate online classes. This subjects parents, teachers, and learners to processes that further strip them of dignity, because access to quality education had always been flimsy even before the classes moved to the virtual space. Worse still, the state said university funding will be cut, and at the same time propagates the uselessness of university degrees, in support of “entrepreneurship,” which in turn justifies that selfish move.
The people of Kenya are entitled to free quality education for all. We all have to understand that it is a state function and the state as it is now will not provide it. It is a very basic utility that has no business being in the hands of private entities. The people therefore have to organize for an alternative state that will provide this and all other public utilities. Students in tertiary institutions have to be the fulcrum of this process as citizens in the sector. The student unions therefore have to be highly politicized with a very clear political ideology and be very militant, since we are in a political system that has always loathed students. Like the Economic Freedom Fighters sing: “Nobody wanna see us together” and at school, but we will learn for free and by force.