Teaching is not a lost art
But the regard for it is a lost tradition
+ + + + + + +
I JOINED THE TEACHING PROFESSION in April 1971 and formally retired from it in July 2012. This book focuses on the first ten years of that forty one-year career. After the first decade, I entered a new field, medical statistics, obtained doctoral level training in it, and went on to teach and do research at universities in the USA and Tanzania. The story of that distinct period awaits a separate volume.
However, at this stage, I consider it appropriate to make a general comparison of how the current academic climate differs from what it was in the 1970s. That is because my final eight years of teaching occurred in a drastically altered academic environment, with the new changes being mostly deleterious in nature.
That is what I highlight in this chapter, which is divided into two sections. The first section narrates my extended encounter with an aspect of symbolism in education. Then I give specific examples of the changes I witnessed in the modern academy.
GOWNS AND GRADUATIONS
Our lives are peppered with milestones: entering a school, marriage, the birth of a child, the award of a special prize, onset of a major illness; to name a few. For the positive milestones, we celebrate, in private or public. The completion of any stage of education, especially higher education, is a key milestone generally marked by a formal graduation ceremony.
I passed my BSc degree exam in March 1971. The graduation ceremony was held three months later. The joyous occasion began with an academic procession. The graduates and academic staff were attired in academic gowns that reflected each person’s academic status. Parents, friends and onlookers in the hundreds were on hand to witness the event. The Chancellor of the UDSM, President Julius Nyerere, conferred the degrees onto about four hundred candidates.
Even though I was one of a few who had a First Class Honors pass, I did not join this ceremony. While my classmates marched to the podium, I was in the crowd of onlookers selling the latest issue of a student magazine. While I was happy and proud to have overcome a major hurdle in life, I had serious reservations about how this event was organized. These were noted in a letter I had written to the editor of the main English language newspaper in Tanzania a few days earlier.
My first concern was that the nature of the ceremony reflected feudal European traditions. I understood why the University of Cambridge held such a ceremony. But should we ape them because we were colonized by the British? My outlook was not that of a blind Africanist who rejected everything foreign. There are many things of value we can and should adopt, adapt or learn from abroad. These include scientific and medical knowledge, organizational methods, literature and aspects of the education system. Feudal gowns were, in my view, not among them. We should conduct graduations in attires and in a manner reflective of local tradition. My other concern was that the ceremony reeked of elitism. In particular, it was not in line with the socialist values the nation was supposed to be promoting at that time. It symbolized a moment in the graduate’s life history whereby he or she was certified as no longer one of the common folk. Though my letter was not published, I remained faithful to my words.
The stand I took at this juncture was but the beginning of an extended saga. My second chance to adorn an academic gown came in 1972, after the completion of my master’s degree at the London School of Economics. But the issue was moot as I had returned to Tanzania before the graduation ceremony took place. The next occasion arose in 1982 when I was awarded the master’s degree in Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Held in the open courtyard adjacent to the main school building, it was a modestly colorful affair. Among the graduating class of about three hundred American and international students, some ten of us did not put on a gown. I was one of them. And when the graduation for my doctoral degree in Biostatistics was held at the same institution in 1986, I had left Boston.
Subsequently as a member of the academic staff of universities in the USA and Tanzania, I had numerous chances to participate in gown draped processions. I rarely attended these ceremonies, and when I did, it was as an onlooker without a gown. But there were two exceptions. While at UCLA in the 1990s, a student I had supervised was to be awarded the PhD degree in Biostatistics. It was customary that the supervisor joined the academic procession and was on the podium to confer the degree. So there I was, standing with other members of the faculty, ready to march. While everyone had put on an elegant gown that reflected his rank and alma mater, I just wore a jacket and a tie. Five minutes to the starting time, the secretary of the Dean of the School of Public Health approached me. She was concerned:
Professor Hirji, I have a right sized gown for you.
Thank you, but I do not need it.
Are you sure?
She was dismayed at my response. Yet I was allowed to participate in the ceremony without any more fuss. I guess they were used to having a few oddballs around.
At the the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Dar es Salaam, I once decided to participate in the annual graduation ceremony. It was a happy occasion for a class I had taught. A number of students had performed in an outstanding manner and I wanted to be there to celebrate the occasion with them.
The academic staff procession was to start from the main lecture hall. I was there on time, as were many of my colleagues. But I was the only one not attired in cap and gown, a fact that raised eyebrows and concerns. As we greeted one another, fellow academician and persons high up in the administration asked me why I had not been given a gown. Their first thought was that it was a bureaucratic oversight. When I said that it was my own decision and gave my reasons, some colleagues actually said:
But, professor, there is always a first time.
Most of them, including an associate dean, found my view an odd one. But no one expressed an objection to my taking part in the academic procession. There was also a lively discussion. Some colleagues agreed that graduation ceremonies had become trivialized. Our talk went on even as the academic procession began. We marched slowly to a half-way point and stopped. Here we were to wait until the guest of honor, President Jakaya Kikwete, had taken his place. After that we would march to the area reserved for the academic staff. As we waited, the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs approached me. With a stern face, he said he had a gown for me. When I declined the offer, he firmly told me that according to the university rules, everyone in an academic procession must put on the gown. No exceptions could be permitted.
Somewhat dismayed, I left the parade and joined the members of the public who had come to watch the event. My spirits were somewhat down, but I was glad that I had not compromised. In any case, I was getting tired under the hot sun. In fact, I did not stay on for the entire ceremony. After my students had been awarded their degrees, I slowly trekked back home.
None of my colleagues later raised the issue of my unceremonious ejection from the procession with me. I did not either. It was probably the only time in the history of the university that a senior professor had been humiliated in public. But I do not harbor ill feelings about it. It is an expression of the bureaucratic rigidity that has come to rule our academia. We pay lip service to academic freedom but clamp down on even a minor deviation from the norm. We meticulously stick to petty rules and regulations but blithely let substantive breaches of the required modes of teaching, research and professional conduct fester for years and years.
Some people adopt a symbolic stand in order to avoid positive action, or to mask misdeeds. Was my resolve to never put on an academic gown a purely symbolic stand, with no broader import? I wish it was so. Unfortunately, it is not. It is also a stand against the replacement of substance by form that has occurred throughout the education system, particularly at the top level.
Today kindergartens and primary schools have grand graduation events. What began as a trend in the USA has been copied by the nations of Africa. Tanzanian papers often carry photos of tiny tots standing and sweating in gowns under the tropical sun. It is a strange sight. What once was a mark of some sixteen years of educational achievement has lost its significance. In a nation beset with childhood poverty and malnutrition, the event expresses the vast social inequality prevailing today. Elite private schools mount fancy ceremonies while the poor students go to overcrowded schools without desks, sufficient number of teachers, books or toilets. For these schools, graduation ceremonies, with or without gowns, are but a dream. Graduating in ancient European feudal attire constitutes a sheer waste of resources that can be put to better use. No doubt, we should celebrate the fine accomplishments of our students. But let us not trivialize them. Let us have simple events that express a creative recourse to our own culture and traditions.
AN ACADEMY IN DOLDRUMS
In 1971, Tanzania had one university with the student population at less than three thousand. By 2017, there were nearly fifty public and private universities enrolling about two hundred thousand students. But this quantitative expansion has gone along with a serious qualitative decline. Accordingly, the marked rise of symbolism in the education system in Tanzania over this period has gone hand in hand with a dramatic decline in the standards of instruction and attainment. The extent of this deterioration at the university level is nothing short of astounding.
I give examples from my personal experience to illustrate the type of changes that have occurred during that period. My aim is not to cast blame on individuals but to point out the systemic nature of the problem. Hence I leave out specific identifying details but only note that what I narrate occurred at MUHAS between 2006 and 2012 while I was a Professor of Medical Statistics at this university.
Post-Graduate Students: My primary teaching assignment at MUHAS was a semester long course on Biostatistics and research methods for the class of postgraduate students pursuing specialties in public health, medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy and other disciplines. It was a required first year course for them. Most other courses were taught under what is called team-teaching. I saw that at MUHAS this method lowered standards and led to inadequate coverage of the subject matter. Hence I always taught the entire course on my own.
In 1989, the number of students in my class was twelve; in 2012, it had burgeoned to one hundred and fifty! In itself, this is not a problem. Giving a lecture to ten or two hundred students requires more or less the same effort. But there are tasks like providing individual guidance, grading homework, continuous assessment tests, the final exam and the supplementary exam, and preparing the class report. At MUHAS, all this has to be done without any tutorial assistants.
A major difference between a postgraduate and an undergraduate course is that in the latter, the students are expected to take more initiative and tackle journal articles on their own. The instructor follows each student’s progress through close interaction. But following that scheme is impossible for a huge class. Furthermore, as compared to the 1980s, the level of comprehension of the subject matter and the ability to express oneself in the English language among the recent students had declined precipitously. It was now common to give an article from say, a pediatrics journal, to a doctor now training to be a specialist in that field only to be told Mwalimu, sielewi (Teacher, I do not understand it).
These postgraduates had to be first taught what they should have learned at the undergraduate level. And despite all my efforts, half the class remained in the dark. The rule was that each course should have two continuous assessment tests. But to make the students aware of their weak points and improve the understanding of the topics, I set four tests, even though it entailed double the work on my part. The students did better if the test had questions that required purely memorization. But if there were questions that required reasoning and explaining the answer, the majority wrote down ungrammatical and incorrect answers that did not make any sense. Sometimes I wondered whether I was teaching a postgraduate class or a Form VI class.
Unethical Conduct: When, after a long absence, I restarted teaching this course in 2006, I found out that in the previous years, all the students had been sailing well through it. This was because it had covered undergraduate type of material and the exams were of a routine type and easy. Furthermore, there was quite a bit of cheating going on during the tests and final exam.
In order to prevent that I always set 10 different minor varieties of each test, and warned the students that it was risky to copy from the neighbors because they may not be doing the same test. Yet, each time, two to four students were foolish enough to copy. During marking, I would be able to catch them and also find out the persons they had copied from. All of them would get the score of zero points, a stern warning and their names were announced in class. Some students were also caught copying during a final exam. I made sure that it was reported to the higher university officials. Unfortunately, no action was taken against them, thus setting a bad precedent.
The academic staff were aware of such dishonest practices yet, apart from grumbling to each other, they did nothing to control it. When it was uncovered, they simply turned a blind eye. On one occasion, a group of diligent postgraduates wrote an open letter to the Vice Chancellor complaining about how copying in tests was easy for other courses and citing my course as the one where such a thing was not possible. They also noted an instance when the class had been left without an invigilator and rampant cheating had occurred. But apart from making me unpopular among my colleagues, the letter had no impact.
In the case of student research, unethical conduct in a variety of forms including plagiarism, using made up data and getting some other party to write the report has become widespread in the recent years. As a result of meticulous auditing of the research material of a postgraduate student project I was co-supervising, I was able to prove beyond doubt that most of the data had been concocted. I alerted the other supervisor and the Director of Postgraduate Studies about this problem. They agreed with my finding. The least that should have been done was to make the student redo the project. Yet no action was taken. The student got a passing grade and the degree. The authorities were afraid of opening a veritable can of worms and, in particular, of being accused of engaging in selective persecution. All the academic staff are aware of rampant dishonesty that affects student research today. However nothing is done to fight the situation.
Study Abroad: The Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at MUHAS was contemplating recruiting two tutorial assistants in Biostatistics who would be sent for master’s and doctoral level training, possibly at the Harvard University.
Candidates with an upper class bachelor’s degree in mathematics or statistics are needed. The relevant departments at UDSM are requested to send us recent graduates with high credentials. With twelve eager persons at our door, I am assigned the responsibility to evaluate them and recommend who is suitable. I often get the tasks for which there is no bahasha (envelope with cash). But I am happy to oblige.
I interview the candidates one by one, spending one and a half hours with each. The academic transcript of everyone shines with A and A+ grades in a variety of basic and advanced courses in mathematics and/or statistics. At face value, each has an impressive record. So I begin:
What was your favorite subject?
Most say Multivariate Analysis or Data Analysis; a few mention Multivariate Calculus or Vector Analysis.
What was the textbook for this course?
The invariable reply is:
Oh, we did not have a textbook.
This is a major revelation. In my time at the same university, each course in the Faculty of Science had one or two required textbooks and one or two optional books, all of which were available at reasonable prices in the university bookstore.
So what did you have?
The lecturer gave us electronic or hard copies of the power point slides.
How many homework exercises did you do per semester?
Then I ask specific questions about the favorite subject. For Multivariate Analysis, I ask:
Please write down the formula for the bivariate normal distribution.
He thinks for a while and replies:
Sorry, I do not recall that one.
What about the univariate normal distribution?
That too, I have forgotten.
I write the formula for the Poisson distribution on the blackboard and ask:
What is this?
It is the poison distribution.
The name is mispronounced.
Please derive the mean value of this distribution.
It is a task suitable for a Form VI class in statistics or applied mathematics. Yet this fellow with his honors level first degree fumbles for five minutes and gets nowhere. And that is how it went with all the candidates. All except one were total washouts. The one who stood out demonstrated Form VI level of competence and not much more.
After I submitted my report, our department selected, despite my reservations, this ‘exceptional’ candidate as a potential recruit. But since the administration did not make available the funds needed to hire him, the entire effort came to naught.
I narrated this episode in a public forum some time later. A professor from Ethiopia who has been teaching multivariate analysis at UDSM for over two decades was in the audience. He approached me when the session was over and made a frank confession:
Professor Hirji, you are quite right. I am the one who taught multivariate analysis to those students. We do not have textbooks. The background of the students is so poor these days. And the classes these days are huge. It is difficult to manage them. You literally have to spoon feed them. What can we do? Everyone teaches in that style now. In the end, basically everyone gets a passing grade. There is no point in giving supplementary exams. It is too much work and, in any case, they will fail again.
When I applied to Stanford University, Oxford University and London University to pursue master’s and/or doctoral study in mathematics in 1971, they requested the syllabuses for the courses I had done at UDSM. Upon receipt, I was accepted by all the three universities. It was up to me to choose where I wanted to go. In those years, the quality of education offered at UDSM in basically all fields was at par with education at leading international universities, and was recognized as such.
In 1974, a student I had taught at UDSM joined a program for the master’s degree in mathematics at a leading Canadian university. Three months into his studies, he sent me a postcard:
Mr. Hirji, I am so grateful for what I was taught at UDSM. In comparison, the courses here are quite easy.
When I joined the Harvard School of Public Health in 1980, I requested my academic adviser to exempt me from most of the first year courses because I had covered such material in my undergraduate years at UDSM. He granted my request but warned me that there was a qualifying exam for the doctoral program. I passed that exam despite the fact that I spent most of those two years in the medical school doing courses like anatomy and microbiology.
Today such things do not happen. Today a bachelor’s degree in mathematics or statistics from UDSM does not enable one to pass the undergraduate courses in that field at any good university outside Africa. And it is a wide ranging problem. All fields are afflicted by the pathetic quantity and quality of knowledge displayed by the graduates of Tanzanian universities. Complaints about it are commonplace in our newspapers.
Symbolic Seminars: Just as the new academic year is about to start, we get a circular from the Dean of the School of Public Health. A week long seminar for the academic staff will be held from Monday onward. We are asked to attend and make presentations. The topic: Improvement of the student research being done at the school. From experience, I know that most seminars are not worth attending. They just distract us from paying due attention to teaching. But the topic of this seminar is an important one. So I not only plan to attend but also make a presentation on how to evaluate the quality of a research report. It is an area in which I have published papers in peer reviewed journals. My weekend is spent preparing my presentation and photocopying the material I plan to distribute.
On Monday morning, the Director of Postgraduate Studies opens the sessions by urging us to delve deeply into the issues and come up with viable solutions to a critical problem. His remarks are off-the-cuff, casual remarks that lack guidance in terms of what needs to be done. But he sets the ball rolling for what is going to become the main theme of the week: blame the students.
A short discussion later, it is time for a break. There is tea and coffee with warmed samosa, mandazi, kabab and fried bananas. In the next session, a senior professor makes his presentation. Other than snippets from his personal experiences, it is done in the same casual style and does not add new substance to what has already been said. A sumptuous lunch is then served. The attendance in the afternoon session falls dramatically.
And that is how it goes each day: vacuous presentations, superficial discussion but excellent meals. Thus, the Head of the Master of Public Health degree program thunders on about irresponsible students who do not want to put in the effort needed to conduct a valid research study and who take unethical short cuts. Yet he has zero information on the number and type of research projects annually being done in that program or the trend he has seen in terms of their quality.
There were, however, two exceptions. An invited lecturer from the Department of Education at UDSM formally summarized, using PowerPoint slides, the situation of the quality of student research at his institution and the steps being taken to raise it. My presentation as well used an overhead projector to explain how research quality is assessed in the context of systematic reviews and details a case study from my own published investigations. I am the only one to give out a handout of papers. From the third day onward, the afternoon sessions are curtailed altogether, and the seminar soon comes to a dribbling halt.
Other than taking us away from crucial tasks associated with teaching, what did this week long exercise achieve? No formal steps of binding nature were spelled out at the end. Though there had been a note taker from the Dean’s office, no report of the seminar was circulated among the academic staff. In the following months and years, they go on with business as usual. No discernible improvement in the quality of student research being done at the School of Public Health was seen.
So, why was it held? For one thing, the academic and administrative staff got delicious free meals for a week. And we got attendance allowance. No wonder, such seminars are occasions whereby academics who otherwise are supposedly busy doing important research make an appearance. But probably there was another underlying consideration. Possibly an unspent grant of say US $20,000 from the Clinton Foundation or some such organization needed to be utilized by a deadline. What better way to spend it than on the issue of improving student research in the arena of public health?
Later, a glossy report to the funding agency would contain the seminar program, daily lists of attendees, a summary of the issues discussed and a breakdown of the associated expenses. The auditors from the agency would be satisfied that the money had been well spent for a good cause.
Yet what had transpired was a symbolic endeavor devoid of academic value, truly a waste of time and money. And it had occurred in an institution lacking funds in critical areas. How the conduct of the academic supervisors was contributing to the persistently high prevalence of substandard student research was an important issue completely neglected in the proceedings. Of recent, I regularly encountered final reports with vague or flawed objectives, an inappropriate study design given the objectives, faulty mode of data collection and in which the compilation, analysis and interpretation of the data had been done in rigid, erroneous style. Yet, all had been approved by the supervisor concerned.
Surprisingly, in our seminar no one complained about the high number of the candidates he or she had to supervise. Unlike in the 1970s, these days one gets the allowance of TSh 100,000 per project supervised. If you supervise five or more projects, you collect a handsome amount with minimal effort. Often the supervisor pays cursory attention to the research proposal and the final report, and the student gets away with shoddy work.
Once I was asked to chair the final defense of a student in the Norwegian financed and assisted Master of Health Policy and Management program. His topic related to the user experience with private health insurance schemes in Tanzania. Upon reading the thesis, I detected many major flaws. Basic information like the number of private insurance companies in the country, the size of their client base and their growth over time was missing. The number of subjects interviewed was too small. The questionnaire had sixty lengthy items but only twenty had been utilized in the report, and the conclusions drawn were questionable. I was convinced that this thesis was deficient to the extent that the entire project needed to redone. I was surprised to note the supervisor was the most senior health economist at MUHAS.
Besides the candidate and myself, the others at the defense were the supervisor, the internal examiner and the external examiner. The latter was a senior professor from the Ardhi University. I began the session by introducing all present and posing two questions of a general nature to the candidate. Then I gave the floor over to the internal examiner. He started by congratulating the candidate for tackling an important issue and doing a good job. He only had three questions of a superficial type for the candidate. Then it was the external examiner’s turn. He too proceeded in an identical manner. It was apparent that each of them had probably taken a hasty look at the thesis this morning. So I began by outlining my principal concerns and posing a series of questions. The candidate was unable to give an acceptable reply to any of them. Thus, he said that only twenty questions had been used for data analysis because during the interviews, the subjects generally declined to proceed further. They had other things to do. Vital information was thereby not collected. Clearly he had not been given good guidance in terms of questionnaire design and the need for a pilot exercise.
My conclusion was that the whole exercise needed to be redone. The supervisor conceded that there were a few minor problems but not much more. In the end, I was outvoted. The candidate was given a passing grade subject to minor revision. This was the one and only time I was given the task of chairing a thesis defense. Reputation spreads; better leave this troublemaker out. Unless you fall in line and become a team player, no more bahashas for you.
Now and then, as I sat with my colleagues for morning tea in the common room, the clerk from the Dean’s office would come with a bundle of envelopes in hand. Many of those present would get one. In formal terms, I outranked almost all of them. But I never got a bahasha. Even the junior staff knew: no bahasha for Professor Hirji. The message was clear: Attempt to do a decent job in the modern academy, and that is the price you will pay.
I was well liked by the students. They were regularly at my door for guidance on the design and analysis of their research. But it was always on an informal basis. While they valued my assistance, with one exception, no one requested me to be the supervisor or co-supervisor. I was known to be a no-nonsense fellow, and no wanted to risk a failing grade.
Dubious Foreign Experts: From the early days when it was a part of the UDSM, foreign academics and health experts working for long or short term basis have been a part of the MUHAS life. Up to the mid-1980s, they were of two different persuasions: a number expressed commitment towards the socialistic goats the nation had set for itself while the others had a liberal Western orientation. In any case, they were usually knowledgeable and experienced in their respective fields, and generally contributed well towards enhancing the scholarship standards at the university.
In the recent times, the situation has changed. Nowadays, it is common to find foreign experts who have a paternalistic or condescending outlook towards Africa. They come here mainly to further their own standing at the home institution. For many it is a chance to get a tropical holiday at the same time. And many among them possess questionable qualifications for the work they are supposed to be doing here.
Once I met two economists from Norway who were at MUHAS for a week to give lectures to the Master of Health Policy and Management degree students. When I asked them about the research they had done on health economics in developing nations, their reply was that their job was to teach basic economic theory which was universal. Not only is that a flawed conceptualization of economics but it also betrayed their paucity of knowledge about Africa. But there were here to guide us on managing our health system.
An incident: The announcement on the noticeboard says that a two-hour seminar on special methods teaching for public health disciplines is to be conducted by a professor from Boston University. She is part of a team from that has come here to assist us on such matters. Sounds interesting, I tell myself.
I sit in the front row to catch her every word. I expect she will enlighten us on how to inject new topics like evidence based public health, systematic reviews, genetics and participatory strategies for rural primary health into our teaching. Yet she does no such thing. There is hardly anything in her presentation that specifically deals with public health. She is a Professor of Education, not a Professor of Public Health! And her talk focuses on using participatory techniques of the type taught to school teachers.
I am thoroughly annoyed. At question time, I am the first one to speak up. I tell her frankly that I did not come to this session to be treated as a trainee primary school teacher. I mention the key issues that ought to have been covered but were not, noting especially the need to integrate relevant papers from health journals in an instructional style that oscillated between the theoretical and practical dimensions of the subject being taught. Careful selection of the papers by the instructor and giving electronic copies to the students at the outset was thus a central part of the teaching effort.
She was visibly disturbed by what I had said but was gracious enough to concede that the issues I had raised were quite important. The others in the audience, my colleagues, were also annoyed but at me, not her. This delegation from Boston University represented another pot of gold from America for the academics at the MUHAS School of Public Health. There were research grants, international travel funds and other perks. Insulting them was a risky, undiplomatic proposition. In order to reverse the damage I had inflicted, one after another of them rose up to praise the distinguished speaker and pose a distracting type of query.
The next day, the Boston University professor came to my office. With a friendly demeanor, she asked for concrete examples of a teaching style that oscillated between theory and application. I suggested that she attend some sessions of the postgraduate class I was teaching. To her credit, she came to two lectures and later thanked me for the opportunity.
In contrast, I note that during my time at MUHAS, I often requested the tutorial assistants and junior academics in my department to attend my lectures in order to learn how to integrate in an organic manner articles from the health literature into the teaching of medical statistics and epidemiology. Despite undertaking to do so, no one ever did.
I can give more examples of how dubious foreign experts and their projects only serve narrow agendas, and in the long run, harm the standing of local universities. The efforts of lecturers and professors are sidelined in the pursuit of easy dollars and vital pedagogic activities are neglected. Consequently, a vicious dependency syndrome based on questionable priorities comes to dominate our academic and research institutions.
Academic Irresponsibility: A picture similar to that painted above emerges from talking with academics from other universities in the nation. The local media features numerous stories about the low levels of knowledge and skill demonstrated by graduates from Tanzanian higher education institutions. At the newer universities, the malady is more serious. At MUHAS and UDSM, there are qualified and experienced academic staff but the essential pedagogic tasks are being neglected. At other places, an acute shortage of well trained staff is the norm. The senior most rank in an entire department may be assistant lecturer. And the publication record for the academics in such places is often shockingly poor.
The fundamental problem may be labeled an epidemic of academic irresponsibility. By and large, our academics do not uphold the primary tenets of the academy. They operate in ways that compromise academic integrity, and dilute the required standards of scholarship in instructional and research endeavors. Instead, they resort to shortcuts and put in the minimal effort required to maintain appearances. Often they overlook even egregious conduct of some colleagues.
In 1971, a professor at UDSM earned the equivalent of US$ 400 per month. By 1989, it had dwindled to half that amount. But the recent years witnessed a big rise. In the year 2012, the salaries of professors at UDSM and MUHAS exceeded US$ 2000. If you add in the multiplicity of allowances, payments from research projects, consultancy and private practice earnings, the professor can easily rake in over US$ 5000 on a monthly basis. No wonder many senior academics now own substantive real estate and commercial enterprises. The astounding fact is that the steep decline of university education has occurred at the same time as the academics have prospered.
On the one hand, with humongous class sizes and resource shortages, they have genuine complaints about the difficulties they face. The administrations regard the academy as a business. The more study programs and the more students there are, the greater the inflow of funds. In their eyes, having strict academic standards spoils the reputation of their institution. Students will be attracted to places where it is easier to get a degree. So unless they come under intense external pressure, they do not inquire too deeply into the issue of academic standards.
Yet the academic staff often use the constraints they face to avoid taking steps that can be undertaken in these conditions. For example, the lack of affordable textbooks is a common complaint. Yet, in this electronic age, many alternative solutions exit. For many disciplines, free textbooks can be downloaded from a variety of websites. But the instructor has to read them first and recommend a suitable one. In this day and age, even that is too much to ask. In my recent years at MUHAS, I never came across a professor with a book in his or her hands, or discussing a book in conversation with colleagues.
Another concern is the students of today have an aversion towards in-depth learning. Lecturers who teach only the basic material and set easy examinations are popular. Those who adhere to the required standards and make them work hard are not. But this is not the fundamental problem. If the teachers acted in a cooperative and concerted manner, it can be quickly turned around.
Many steps in that direction are available. For example, at MUHAS, we could use the WHO provided portal to access, download and print out papers from a large number of international journals that relate to the varied health and medical specialties. In that respect, the situation is much better than it was in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the academic staff use this facility only for writing their research and consultancy reports. Using it to enhance classroom instruction was a rare event.
For my postgraduate course, I would download about twenty relevant articles. I also had a detailed series of lecture notes and other material. All this stuff would be placed on a flash drive and given to the class representative at the beginning of the semester. While the students did not have books, each had a laptop computer. Copying the flash drive gave all of them a ready access to the material that would keep them busy for the duration of the course.
Adopting this teaching strategy required quite a bit of effort at the outset. In the subsequent years, that was not the case. Each year I made minor modifications to the notes and changed a couple of articles. During meetings and in person, I often mentioned what I was doing. But no one in the School of Public Health ever took a step in that direction.
There is a minority of academics who are dedicated to their profession and seek to teach at the level required for the course in question. But they are not encouraged or rewarded for their efforts. In fact, they are often placed in a disadvantageous position. A number of young assistant lecturers who begin by doing things as they should be done find themselves frustrated and embrace the practices of the easygoing majority.
The availability of external funds and presence of foreign experts has created a diversionary environment. The core academic activities thereby get much less attention than they deserve. The key thing is not to reject external assistance but to have our own primary agenda and to ensure that it is provided on our own terms and not terms set from outside.
Of recent, the academic standards at Tanzanian universities had become so low that it promoted the Tanzania Commission on Universities to stop about half of them from enrolling new students. But the remedial steps being taken only scratch the surface. But the rot is too deep and ingrained and affects the so-called top tier universities as well.
Without a gigantic, concerted discipline by discipline effort jointly undertaken by all the universities and regulatory bodies spanning over several years, we are bound to essentially remain where we are now. We have the qualified manpower and the intellectual wherewithal to successfully perform this major task. The question is to initiate it on a national scale in a fully transparent and participatory manner with parliamentary and civil society oversight.
Instead, the blame game prevails. Politicians blame teachers, who in turn blame students and work conditions. While there is a grain of truth in these assertions, the solution lies not in blame but in struggle; struggle on all fronts – educational, social, political and economic. And the teachers have to be the primary actors in this struggle to fundamentally transform education. For, in the final analysis, we, the teachers, must bear in mind that:
When our students have failed,
We, as teachers, too, have failed.