In an event awash with glamour and confetti, the Jubilee coalition launched its ‘transformative’ manifesto on June 26. A day later, the NASA coalition launched its own appropriately titled ‘a strong nation.’
I watched the launch keenly on television, and followed up with the regular commentaries on print media and the plethora of ‘talking heads’ on TV.
The most immediate reactions on both mainstream and social media were largely on form and performance, focusing more on which of the two was the more spectacular.
It appears we are bound up in that society aptly described by the French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, where the expression and mark of style is more important than the substance of a thing or event.
Here, ‘we are thrilled by the play of images, and spectacles that have less and less relationship to an outside, to an external “reality,” to such an extent that the very concepts of the social, political, or even “reality” no longer seem to have any meaning.’
This is most probably why five years ago, many Kenyans voted based on computer generated images of fast electric trains, techno cities, multiple stadia and a pervasive ‘state-of-the-art’ illusion. The symbolic form had trumped actual reality.
I believe manifestoes are meaningful documents. While their effect on poll outcome is a different debate, much of what is often declared as a manifesto must be taken seriously, both as a statement of intent and as a report-form of achievement. This is especially so with regard to a crucial a sector as education.
When Jubilee announced the controversial promise of laptops to class one pupils at its manifesto launch in 2013, it went ahead to commit tens of billions of taxpayers’ monies to the project. In an earlier article, I demonstrated how this particular decision had impacted on staff development and research capacity in higher learning, where long established research collaborations and training of doctoral students were halted and funds diverted to the Chinese made green electronic gadgets.
I argued that in a context of tribal claims to university campuses, politicisation of appointment to these institutions of higher learning, poor funding and a disturbing anti-intellectual culture, the Jubilee government legacy on higher education was uninspiring. The continued denigration of dons demonstrated by a second strike in only four months does not help matters.
Manifestos have consequences.
So, what do the two manifestoes portend for higher education in Kenya for the next five years? To answer these questions demands that we seek out first the philosophy informing the two manifestos.
The Jubilee manifesto is largely built on a lose philosophy of ‘development,’ ‘conveyor-belt’ economics, where emphasis is on ‘things’ and ‘numbers’. In its first chapter where its vision is spelt out, numbers are repeatedly splashed as evidence of achievements and as statements of intent. From the front matter to the last page, it is a highly quantitative document dominated with impressions of ‘production’, ‘wealth’ and ‘construction.’
On its part, the NASA manifesto is largely qualititative, focusing more on social justice, constitutionalism and nationhood. The first section of the NASA manifesto, titled ‘Becoming Kenyans’ begins with an assumption that the idea of ‘Kenyanness’ is a problematic, conflicted construct in desperate need of repair. In contrast, Jubilee’s manifesto is ahistorical – it evades and erases history-which it sees as inimical to its definition of development.
The NASA manifesto argues that a comprehensive implementation of the Constitution has been undermined by the Jubilee regime and that the most important and urgent questions are to reclaim the idea of ‘Kenyanness’ by rebuilding our nationhood, pursuing social justice, resolving historical traumas and restoring the country to a path of constitutionalism.
These two different philosophies, beyond the specifics each manifesto raises on education, have different ramifications for higher education.
Drawing on this, the two coalitions have promised free secondary education. But the devil is in the detail. Jubilee’s free secondary education is limited only to day public secondary schools. NASA promises a blanket free secondary education. These two promises are not similar. Still, in one of its pillars, NASA terms the attainment of the right to universal secondary education as ‘progressive.’
This could potentially be interpreted as a caveat to the promise for free secondary education. The premise of NASA’s educational manifesto is largely built on its philosophy of social justice and a statement on the inequality that continues to define the social and economic conditions of the Kenyan state.
Meanwhile, the Jubilee manifesto highlights the perceived achievements it has made in education, but is a little silent on the class divide that plagues both basic and higher education.
Some of the achievements it has listed are a little mischievous. For instance, the claim that “every student that met the entry qualification was offered a place at the university, the first time in Kenya’s history (sic)” masks the reality that a decision was taken on grading and exams moderation last year that radically reduced by almost 50 per cent the number of students who may have scored the minimum mark.
In its desire to reclaim a ‘lost’ nationhood, NASA promises to ‘unleash the power of culture’ by giving prominence and deliberately funding culture in all its institutionalised forms. According to its manifesto, the arts and culture define the soul of nationhood. As part of this project, NASA promises to elevate Kiswahili as both a national and official language to the point of offering government services in Kiswahili. The overall implication for higher education in supporting culture and language is that the liberal arts programmes in universities, which Jubilee had promised to scale down in a new funding regime that placed premium on vocational, science based courses, will be reversed.
Also, universities and institutions of higher learning will play different roles in NASA and Jubilee regimes. For Jubilee, universities are conceptualised as institutions seen as ‘separate’ from the state, designed to support an industrialisation agenda, while for NASA; universities ‘reflect Kenya’s social inequality’ and hence, need to be made more socially responsive as part of the states’ aim of delivering social justice.
Similarities are not absent. The two manifestos promise to link private sector and universities, and make research more meaningful to society. Both also promise to expand loans to students.
However, the Jubilee manifesto is strangely silent on funding research. Instead, it will establish a centre of excellence and an ‘innovation hub’ in the yet to be established Konza technopolis. This is a vintage political promise likely to suffer a fate similar to the infamous Jubilee stadia. Jubilee also proposes to establish a government sponsored apprenticeship programme for up to 12 months for all university and TVET students.
On its part, NASA promises to increase research funding to universities and establish at least one public university in each county.
The ramifications of the two manifestos on higher education might seem small, but they are actually fundamental. It was George Gerbner who argued that just as an average temperature shift of a few degrees can lead to an ice-age, so too can relatively small differences change a nation.
– The writer lectures at Moi University, (first published by The Standard)