By Fred Mbogo
Published May 15, 2013
Some 53,010 new undergraduate students are expected to stream into 22 public universities and their constituent colleges in Kenya starting from September 2013. This is 26% higher than the 42,000 students admitted in 2012. What’s more, the qualifying mark has also been lowered from 63 points in 2012 to 61 in 2013.
But there is the small matter of affirmative action. Female students shall be admitted with two points lower than their male counterparts. While the lower cut off points for men is 61 for girls it is 59 points. Men with 59 points must live with the feeling that they could have joined public universities if only for their gender. These men are essentially being told that they belong to the wrong gender!
The Joint Admissions Board (JAB), the hallowed institution that admits students to public institutions of higher learning in Kenya, has based its educated selection criteria on the starting point. The sad but moving narrative is that the girl child has constantly been undermined by a patriarchal society whose opinions, stemming from traditions that privilege the boy child, are mostly misogynistic. JAB is therefore on a mission to save society from its own murky, retrogressive and unwanted rules. For, pray, how shall we soar into that spotlessly modern world without moving with the woman in society?
Life has to move on in the spirit of finding a way of mending inequality in society. Indeed, one walk into a University departmental staff meeting will explain the need for the idea of a gender balancing. More women are needed in the teaching area of University. That is the refrain.
When thinking pragmatically, however, one must wonder whether this gender balancing is merely a cosmetic exercise. In other words, why must there be more female students this year than last year? Will a greater female populace within the student fraternity at these public universities result in a better balanced workforce at the work place? Or will the male part of the workforce be more gender sensitive?
When these female students come into the university with what in essence are inferior qualifications they will be expected to â€œcatch upâ€ with the rest. Supposing they do not catch up then something has to be done to the system of learning. Curriculum will have to be bent to accommodate the weaklings. This in turn will have the employing industry reacting either ignoring these catching-up group members or they will have to resign themselves to working with â€œinferiorâ€ or half-baked graduates and therefore notify their consuming populace of their resorting to the production of inferior products!
The main focus should be at the starting point. There should be a serious regular campaign that sensitises society of equity at the start of life. Some cultural re-engineering should lead parents, guardians and those in the provision of early education to enforce competitive spirits in children of both genders. No one should be treated equally. This systematic re-engineering should create a female candidate ready to grab opportunities with men on equal footing.
The problem with affirmative action strategies is that most often than not they tend to be counterproductive. In the Kenyan situation it is possible that female students will be perceived as being lesser intelligent than their male counterparts. This certainly is not helpful in the construction of a female psyche that is ready to work hard. Why should a young woman who knows that entry points to an institution are lowered put in any extra effort? In her minimal efforts she is likely to expect every other opportunity to be granted to her on a silver platter. But that is not the way real life works. It is much more brutal. It is willing only to reward capability and not perceived favouritism. It does not come with a historical menu detailing disadvantage backgrounds.
The JAB is also going to admit students from marginalised areas with lower qualifications than those from other areas, according to JAB chair, Prof Mabel Imbuga.
â€œWe have decided as board to give 94 slots for candidates from pure arid areas and another 2,979 admissions to the female candidates under the JAB gender affirmative policy,â€ she said during a media briefing at Juja’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Also to benefit are what JAB refers to as ‘students with disabilities’; they shall be allowed to choose ANY course as long as they obtained a mean grade of C+.
But this appears to be a time bomb. In a country fighting against ethnic profiling and stereotyping, those from perceived marginalised areas will be stigmatised as having been favoured. Their opportunities in the world beyond universities will be curtailed by the perception that they are inferior. A whole generation of those from such marginalised areas will be condemned to seek opportunities from without Kenya if they are to survive. Or they shall restrict themselves to areas within those marginalised spaces otherwise called hardship areas even for teachers who should create some semblance of a start that promises an equal beginning.
Life perhaps is not fair, but there must be better ways of checking runaway inequality. Pockets of interventionist attempts such as the JABâ€™s efforts might be coming in too late for the affected students. They might also be re-enacting scenarios of the labelling of these same â€˜savedâ€™ students as the lesser beings. Creating new stigmas is not their business.
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.