Prof George Magoha arrives at Jogoo House, the Education ministry headquarters, with glittering credentials of excellent public performance and academic achievements. But he is facing an equally tough assignment given the challenges confronting the education sector arising from poor leadership witnessed in recent times.
His predecessor Amina Mohamed, who moves to Sports, Culture and Heritage, lowered the bar through misadventures, indecisiveness and sheer lack of understanding of the vexed education sector. Her short-lived tenure was an anti-climax; a drastic climbdown from the high standards set by the previous minister, Dr Fred Matiang’i, who now heads Interior docket with the additional plum job of co-ordinating all other ministries.
A professor of medicine, Mr Magoha carries with him success of running the University of Nairobi competently during a turbulent time of transition, especially in the early years of the Narc administration that was characterised by expanded democratic space, freedoms and civil liberties.
Then, Prof Magoha had made history as the first competitively appointed vice-chancellor of a public university. In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki, who had stridden to power in 2002 on the wave of reform agenda under Narc, appointed individuals as chancellors of public universities, jettisoning erstwhile perverse practice where the Head of State sat as the titular of head of public universities.
Mr Joe Wanjui, a renown entrepreneur, was appointed chancellor of the University of Nairobi and his first determination was to declare competitive appointment of all positions, starting with that of vice-chancellor. When VC position was advertised thereafter, Prof Magoha, who had hardly worked as deputy vice-chancellor, applied and went ahead to floor a team of veteran academicians and administrators to get the coveted job. He was to serve for two terms, from 2004-2014.
His major achievement was addressing deteriorating quality of teaching and learning and manage lecturers and students, who in view of the expanded freedoms, had revived their unions that had been banned under the Kanu rule years ago, which unions became very virulent. But he was able to calm the restive students and stridently aggressive lecturers through a mix of firmness, ruthlessness, bravery, consultations and decisiveness — all combined to earn him the nickname ‘buffalo’.
One of his outstanding attainments was construction of the University Tower, the imposing structure at the main campus that had never seen any physical structure development in decades.
But his lasting legacy was at the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) where, working together with then Education minister Dr Matiang’i, he stamped out veritable string of exam cheating that had brought shame to the country.
He arrived at Knec with the ruthlessness and singularity of mind and quickly conducted structural and administrative reorganisation. All top officials were vetted afresh and those found unsuitable exited. Those who survived the purge were committed to excellence. And the results showed. In the first year at Knec, the number of candidates scoring grade A and above dropped drastically.
His mantra was “no more stupid As” — a pejorative reference to the previous years when many candidates scored higher grades after cheating in the exams.
Speaking during the release of last year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), Prof Magoha declared that he was stepping out when his term at Knec ends, which was to be this March. His inclination was to get out and let others take over and drive the reform process at the council. With the benefit of hindsight, his declaration has come to pass but in a circuitous manner. Yes, he is stepping down as Knec chair but not going away. He is taking a more powerful and strategic role in examination administration. As Education minister, he will directly be in charge of policy and overall oversight on administration of exams.
But he has his work cut out. The first assignment is to review implementation of the competence based curriculum launched controversially this year and which, by all counts, is hurtling from one crisis to another — poor preparation of teachers, lack of teaching and learning materials, inadequate and weak supervision. Second, he has to deal with the biting shortage of teachers in schools and bungled staff transfers. Added to this is the frequent strike by teachers over pay package, which perennially disrupt learning.
Third, he has to tackle the nagging question of lack of funding for primary and secondary schools given the dwindling resources for free primary and subsidised secondary education.
Fourth, which sits within his purview, is streamlining university education, currently beset with myriads of challenges, among them cash crunch, staff shortage, absence of teaching and learning resources and paucity of research. Crucially deserving attention is funding of university education — cash for students, budgets for the institutions and funding for research.
Within the realm of higher education is also co-ordination of expansion of technical and vocational education and training that has taken a sense of urgency in recent years to ensure value for learners and the economy.
Prof Magoha’s scalpel is required at the ministry more than anywhere else. He must get on the job running and clear the mess in the sector.