Exam cheating and Kenya’s flawed education system

By Edwin Okong’o


Photo: Maureen Didde. Cropped, and used under Creative Commons license.
Kenyan student photo by Maureen Didde. Resized, and used under Creative Commons license.
Kenya’s Education Secretary Fred Matiang’i has ordered the cancellation of the college entrance exam results of 5,000 students. The government also announced the sacking of a number of top Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) officials, who could also face criminal charges for their alleged roles in the scandal.

Although that’s the right response from the government, it is superficial and will do little to remedy what is a broken and outdated system of education. If President Uhuru Kenyatta and his government are serious about reforming education, they have to go deeper than cancelling results and prosecuting KNEC officials. 

Kenya’s education system needs a serious — and urgent — overhaul. It’s a pity that we are still running on a system inherited from the British. That system was only meant to teach Africans enough to work in low-level administrative jobs in the colonial administration.

It is also flawed because it uses standardized national examinations as the sole yardstick of measuring how intelligent one is. Students spend a majority of their school years preparing for exams, instead of learning how to solve real-life problems. As a result, we have a country with highly educated people who aren’t capable of applying what they learned in school.

Kenyan universities also use the exam as the sole indicator of how successful a student will be. The higher you score, the more likely you are to gain admission to a top university. But the main reason students cheat is that the threshold for gaining admission to public universities is set so high that — due to the poor state of most schools — it’s impossible for a most students to attain.

Like elsewhere in Africa, university education is highly valued in Kenya. Students who don’t qualify for admission ate seen as failures, who have no right to complain about unemployment. In 1992, I was one of those students.

I scored averagely in the exam, but not good enough to be admitted to a university. Failing made me think that I wasn’t capable of achieving academic excellence. I might have continued to believe that if I hadn’t left Kenya for the United States.

In the United States, I was surprised to be told that — like many Africans — I was an exceptional university student. I went from a being really horrible student in Kenya to a top student and even went to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Since I graduated from there many years ago, I have been thinking hard about my unlikely academic excellence. How did I go from that poor Kenyan high school student to excel in graduate school in one of the most distinguished universities in the world?

The answer is that I was never a bad student. I worked hard and managed to pass the national exam, even though I had attended a school that was something of cross between a school and a jail.
I did not fail. Kenya’s bureaucratic system failed me.

In the year I took the college entrance exam, Kenya had only four public universities serving a nation of 30 million people. Instead of the government building new universities to accommodate more students, they raised the bar so high that I became a loser. That continues today, and it’s why students are willing to cheat.

But it’s highly likely that the students who had their results canceled were not loafers who spent their school days goofing around. It’s possible that they are hard-working students who, like me, were cheated by the bureaucratic education system. They might have cheated because they knew that they are good enough to succeed in a university setting.

All they might have been attempting to do was get a little boost to meet that minimum requirement for a university admission.

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