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Opinions of Saturday, 3 September 2011

Columnist: Fekpe, Charles Kofi

Who Said A “Degree” Is All You Need?

(By Charles Kofi Fekpe)

The truth can often times be brutal. In fact in most cases, it tastes like a bitter pill. Yet as history has taught us, it is these often bitter pills that provide relief for our ailments. Today I will give a doze of one of such pills. I am neither criticizing nor showering praise – I am merely attempting to make truth more glaring.

Several years ago I travelled to a western nation and in seeking for employment I faced one of what I deem the most insulting and yet, paradoxically frank encounters of my life. After throwing my CV out of the window and being told my educational qualifications were not relevant in this particular country, I was still handed the job. What an insult, I said to myself, but for now, I needed the job so I’ll just shut up and take the job. Three years down the line after I started a masters programme at one of the same country’s premier universities it all became crystal clear – they were right, my African qualifications didn’t really provide me what I needed to be efficient on the job. The rather unhappy realisation came in two ways. On the one hand, casting my mind back I realized most of the work I did on the job didn’t really have much of a connection to the academic qualifications I had earned. One question rang loud in my head at this point – if the name of the subject of study is the same in Africa as in this country, why then is its application easier for students of the same subject in this country than it is for me? Then the second realisation happened on my one year Masters course. The structure of the course was not totally different from what I would have experienced in Africa but something else was – the content. And that’s where the missing link is. Before I go further, let me just say that this is strictly a matter of my own experience, observation and opinion. It is up to you my reader to face the truth of it or bury your head in the sand in denial. It is what it is.

The biggest trap or maybe shortfall, I have recognized in our country’s educational system, especially at tertiary level is that curriculum is very divorced from the industries that graduates are supposed to serve once completing their tertiary education. To a bystander, it appears as though the tertiary institutions are churning students out as square plastic cups whereas industry’s real need is for round metal balls. A few questions arise however; is it simply a case of industry not being willing to participate in shaping the tertiary education content or is it the case that they have not been invited to participate at all? Or perhaps, industry was indeed invited but ignored academia because of their strictly profit-oriented motives. Further on still perhaps, government has not proactively laid down the foundations to enforce or strongly encourage collaboration between industry and academia. Whatever the reason is, to me, it is still an unacceptable mystery.

Interestingly none of the above is my focus today. My focus is on students of tertiary education. Inasmuch as it is easy to stand back and blame industry, academia and government for your inability to match your academic learning to industry expectations, yet, the outcome of all those failures will be dependent on you. You have to decide whether you will let all those systemic failures define your success or encourage your failure – it’s always a choice you’ve to make.

A few current facts I wish to bring into perspective: Africa and indeed Africa’s economy after many many decades is beginning to open up. It means that we are no more permitted to remain a local economy. This is an era where the term “a global village” becomes exceptionally relevant. Look all around you. Many companies in Africa are international or altogether foreign and even if that isn’t the case, there is a high chance they will have some international influence in the way they do business. What does it mean? It means you, as a typical African graduate are now on the same competitive platform as a graduate from Britain or Belgium or France or USA. It’s a global village now. No more barriers to human resource and the way it works is this – most international companies realize that business competition is very tough and they have only limited opportunity to get it right consistently every time. And that means, hiring the best people (graduates) that come out with practical understanding and knowledge of what their industry needs to remain profitable. The question for you as a African graduate is – has your tertiary education equipped you well enough to be seen as adequately profitable in a global human resource market? Will they choose you or another graduate from elsewhere? In case you are blindly thinking to yourself “oh I think it will be more expensive to bring down graduates from abroad to run a company’s operation in Africa”….. ding dong!! You are wrong! Truth is the economies abroad are getting weak, jobs are scarce, industries are choked with experienced people who have been laid off and all this group of people are happy to bear their own costs to relocate. Some of them even have an added incentive, which is that their salaries may not be taxed by the governments of their original countries. In a way, you could say the governments of these countries actively encourage their citizens to go out into other countries of world, make money and bring it home for national development. So you see, they have more incentives to travel all the way to compete with you on your own soil. Think again.

It doesn’t really matter what you are studying at tertiary level. What matters is that one day you will come out of those walls and into the job market where there is neither friendliness nor pity. Unfortunately however tertiary education as we know it has evolved. As to whether the form of tertiary education experienced in our beloved Africa has also evolved is a question I’ll best leave to my readers to answer.

A few years ago, it used to be that those with money and natural resources had a lot of power – today it is those with knowledge and information that have power. Knowledge, they say is power. I beg to differ. Honestly, knowledge is only powerful if it can help solve problems for humanity or make your own life better. Do you see the education you have received so far as being able to answer yes to any of these? Japan, China, Britain, France, etc in whatever way you know them, do NOT have as much national natural resources as compared to Africa and yet they dictate the pace – surely then it is NOT about natural resources.

Just yesterday, it was those with experience that had superiority in the work place – today it is those with creativity who make the rules. The question now beckons – how have you been educated till now? Have you been educated to end your thinking at what you read in a textbook or your education challenges you to think beyond what you cannot find in any textbook? Does your education challenge you to ask your own questions and follow through to search for answers? Does it al all challenge your creativity? Or you are just content to accept what others have innovated? Indeed like a Nigerian will rightly say “I beg whish one be your own problem?” – which side of the fence do you stand – Static education or innovative learning?

This very daring truth remains – it is those who give solutions who rule and if that’s not what your education is encouraging you to do, then that education is dead – You will have to do something about it. You owe that duty to yourself and to the success of your future. The world, because of the current non-existence of barriers has become one very big open-university and market. Knowledge is available everywhere and the speed at which new progress is being made in every field of study makes the next comment I am about to make very very frightening; with the rate at which new research findings and knowledge is being produce, if you leave tertiary education and have not brought yourself up to date 6 months down the road, your knowledge shelf life equates to “EXPIRED” – that’s how fast new knowledge is becoming available. There is therefore no more excuse regarding the non availability of education. Virtually everything you need to know is on the world-wide-web (www) these days and funny enough, almost for free. There has never been a time in history where it is so unjustified, for anyone to ever blame their failure in life on the unavailability of knowledge. Not in this era. In the same vein the world has also become a single market place. In our era, cultural, political, language, physical and other barriers in the past that hampered expansion of ideas and businesses and skills beyond one’s resident country of residence have crumbled. Combining these major changes in the world today should make every tertiary education student, once completing their formal education and entering into working or career life ask some very critical questions of themselves. In fact I dare say some of the questions are even more relevant to students now about to enter into tertiary education.

Question: What’s the colour of your Brain?: As fascinating as this question may be, it is the most important question anyone should ask, be you a parent, teacher or students themselves before embarking on this long journey of education that will in no small way affect their lives forever – yes! So what is the colour of your brain? Let me explain. The issue is not so much as the physical colour of your brain but rather trying to understand how YOU as an individual is wired. Seriously, we are all not built the same way – that’s what I mean by being wired. That’s the reason why we don’t all speak, think, act, behave, reason and feel the same way. The list could go on. The fundamental issue is, you ought to “know thyself”. The uniqueness about you determines in large part, whether you are successful in life – during education, during career and way after. More often than not we tend to work our lives in the opposite direction to our uniqueness. If however you are going to be outstanding in your education and in your career, then you NEED to work in harmony with your uniqueness and not against it.

Your uniqueness is simply what makes you tick. What excites you. What you do with ease that others have to struggle to do. It is finding what comes to you naturally. Just as an example, if talking comes to you naturally, then you are already on the wrong path trying to study to become a psychological therapist that requires an awful lot of listening and not much talking. And if you are very nervous or irritable around people, what business do you have attempting to study to become a human resource manager? Really? The point I am trying to drive home is this, more often than not you inadvertently may have chosen your current course of study, be it in the sciences or humanities because of factors other than where your strengths lie. Think about it. 90% of the time, students have chosen a course of study or a career path because….you either wanted to impress your parents or in extreme but very common scenarios because your parents wanted you to tow a certain line. It is quite pathetically fascinating that parents can most selfishly push their children to become what they themselves couldn’t become, or as is the sad case sometimes, to become what they themselves are. OK so it worked for you as a parent doesn’t really mean it will work for your child too but sadly, that’s just what happens. Lest I forget I have come across the odd cases of parents making these life defining choices for their children because they have carried out an audit in the family achievements and realised Oops!....there’s no family member who is a Doctor or Engineer or Accountant in the family line up. This, is the true definition of selfish ambitions on the part of parents. And so the final story is this – a child gets tied up into a destiny that neither brings out the best in him/her nor guarantees their future success nor provides an easy escape route. Imagine, especially in the African perspective, where parents mostly cover the costs of education all the way to tertiary education – well, like they say, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. In other words, it can be very difficult on the part of the student to call the shots in respect of what he wants to study once the money is paid. Consciously or otherwise sometimes, the parents do not present these choices. Its either a case of “hey! We have gotten you admission at xyz university to study abc. It’s a good school and we’d pay the fees. All you have to do is study, you hear me?” Now on the one hand you don’t give this child an opportunity to express his/her choices or grow in the confidence of making personal decisions (even though this provides an opportunity for parents to teach children how to make lifetime decisions); so his destiny gets two damages into the future. The first damage is that this child is probably going to end up spending the next 5 to 10 years of their life studying something they are not wired to excel in, which they find difficult to stay in tune with and which provides no personal satisfaction whatsoever during their career phase – now, how miserable can that be? The second damage is more subtle and can go unnoticed as having arisen from that one incidence – some people will go through life unable to make life decisions for themselves. Some will, for the rest of their lives see it as normal to tow the line of other people’s decision or better still, to accept that no decision of their own is worthwhile. Now, how do you expect someone like that to make it through life as a success?

Now that my fellow parents have gotten a share of their contribution to the knowledge hole, lets take it up where we left it. Another wrong way that students start of on study/career paths, is to choose a path of study/career in line with what the trend of the era is. I remember at the time I was studying for my Chartered Accountancy qualification, the craze of the era was IT – and quite unimaginably everyone wanted to get a piece of it. It does make sense to be abreast with trends in the world and to ensure that it doesn’t run one down but in all honesty, many students at the time jumped on the IT wagon. As to whether some of them were cut out for IT, or really enjoyed it still leaves a dozen questions unanswered.

Yet still, many would choose a course of study because of the likely rewards. Over time, there has been a very strong misconception that certain jobs make you more money than others. As seemingly true as it may sound, it still is a very wrong and dangerous misconception. if you averagely walked into any school and paraded in front of a lecture hall, three persons – an Accountant in a nice suite, a Banker with a fat belly and a casually dressed young man who would later be known as the inventor of the modern day ipod. I can bet you that until the popularising of the modern day ipod, 90% if not 99% of the students polled would most likely have opted to follow a career path akin to the accountant or Banker. At least that was the conception 4 years after I chartered as a Certified Accountant – everybody else I knew was studying for Accountancy. Everybody. But no one was ever asking the question – is this really me?

And then finally of course we have the desperados – who choose their career and study paths out of frustration; perhaps because the university they really wanted to go to had ran out of places for BSc in Computer sciences so “I’ll just take the psychology option at least to obtain my Bachelor’s degree”. Really? Is that how dispensable your life really is? Well that’s just 3-4 years of your life just flushed down the drain. Oh yes it is. Or is it because you couldn’t put together the full funding you needed for that Law course so you’ll just settle for a History degree. Really? Frustration pretty much is just like getting drunk if you think about it – the booze will wear off, and then what next?

I have often come across the question from several students “OK, so I made the wrong choice of study or career path, but what should I do now”. Well, there is a one sentence answer I could give but I usually don’t because it will only show how unwise I’ll be seen to be – paradoxical isn’t it? The truth is (and it is a hard truth) we all have the tendency to very easily shy away from the responsibility of being responsible for our own decision and the results of those decisions. So the easy way out, is to get someone else to make the decision and for us to swallow their suggestion – if it all goes well, you’ll take the full credit and if it doesn’t, it was that “somebody” who deceived you. But on a more honest note, only you know best how you are wired, what you are made of, what works and what doesn’t for you. Only you know what images you have in your mind about how you want your future to look and feel like. This picture which many refer to as dreams and vision (not the kind of dreams with snakes and monkeys running after you) should be the driving force. Dreams do spell out where you want to be two, three, ten years from now. Combining such a knowledge with a thorough understanding of how you function best should make it exceptionally easy to figure out what you have to be doing at this time of your life. I try most a times to use this analogy. Assume for a minute that you need to be in Bolgatanga (in the northern region) for a wedding (that is your dream. It is the clear picture you have of the future) and that you also know very well that you are an excellent driver and although you have flown in aeroplanes in the past you always get very sick every time after a flight (this is you knowing your strengths; how you were wired, what works and what doesn’t work for you). Anybody’s guess would be that knowing these two parameters of your life makes it easy to plan out how you should get to Bolgatanga, and in good shape for the wedding. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure it out with a bit of imagination.

Back to the question “what should I do now if I have realized I got it wrong from the beginning?”. Well, let me help you by helping you ask yourself 2 questions. And where you go from here depends on how genuine your answers will be: 1. How many years have you wasted so far going on the wrong track and how many more years on average do you have ahead of you? 2. Do you want to continue walking in the wrong path (and enjoy the misery it brings) or would you prefer to put the mistakes behind and follow what is the best path for you (and enjoy the satisfaction and rewards)

I don’t believe for a minute that answering these two questions above poses any difficulty. The real difficulty comes with the fear of turning away from the old way of doing things which you have become used to. Many have gotten to this point and yet could not follow through with implementing the right decision. They argue lamely “the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know” – well, the truth is that firstly, the devil you know is the reason why life feels miserable and secondly, you don’t know the angel because you are scared of knowing him. Everything is a choice and whether you end up having the best of this life is a choice too. It has never been the fault of anybody else but you.

Another Question – What do you know? Those of you reading this article who lived in the era I lived in will identify this heading as bringing back memories of a quiz show. That really is not too far off from what I would say under the heading anyway so perhaps it is fitting. I have been accused many times before of being blunt. Here’s another typical example why – most African students hardly read. I know this is a sweeping statement but strangely enough, I don’t regret it. The truth still remains, the average no! sorry, in fact MOST African students don’t read. Yes they read the Bible, the Quran, the newspaper, and for the purposes of passing their exams, they read the textbooks and lecture notes, but outside these parameters, they don’t read.

In the world we live in and wherever you are aspiring to get to, whether in your line of study or career, you can be sure someone has gotten there already. But that isn’t what fascinates me. I am rather fascinated by the fact that 10 out of 10 times, a book has been written about the journey it takes to get there as well as the experiences to expect once you get there. So the question I often ask those that I mentor is “why then do you want to get there blindfolded”. I paint the picture this way – granted that we are all different and that our experiences and expectations will be different, yet some things never change. If it costs you a few Cedis of investment into a book and a few hours of reading to prevent you from making some of the most dreaded yet obvious mistakes that others have already made and written about – I think it is very worth considering. Some do believe however that experience is the best teacher. My view? – experience is indeed the teacher of fools, especially if you can use somebody’s experience as a guide. Its hilarious isn’t it, that we find it easier to walk down a road and fall in the same ditch, get hurt, lose time and money taking care of the injury, when all could have been prevented by reading the signpost that somebody had written saying “I fell here last year and it was very painful, please watch out for the ditch 2 meters ahead”. Why do you have to fall in the same ditch in order to learn from experience?. That unfortunately is not experience – its madness in the nicest form.

A wise man once told me “readers are leaders”. As I reiterated earlier, the world is changing at an exceptionally fast pace; so fast, gone are the days when you were allowed to complete your university or tertiary studies, gain some practical experience for a year or two and then finally, get drafted as an employee. No more. In this age, time is so short you are expected to know it all by the time you come out of school. The luxury of spending a year gaining experience is no more affordable. Textbooks don’t give you everything. At best they give you the theory of idealism. The question then beckons “what do you know, other than the theory of things”. As a business advisor, I’ll tell you this (and it’s exactly what many employers today will tell you) – theory doesn’t make money. So read, is what I say. It can only keep you a mile ahead of the competition. Read a lot. In today’s world, knowledge is so evidently and easily accessible you can no more blame your lack of it on your geographical location, or race, or anything for that matter. That’s what the internet is all about. It is to make you more informed, more refined, more relevant – NOT more facebook or skype addicted. If for every hour of time you spend on the internet, you cannot measure GhC 5 of value added to yourself, then you most definitely are getting the wrong end of the stick. Throw that stick away and find a new one.

Mr. Charles Kofi Fekpe will be hosting and delivering a symposium/talk for Tertiary students at the Africa College of Physicians and Surgeons Hall, near the Ridge Roundabout in early October 2011. Attendance is strictly by registration on a first come first served basis (Contact him directly for further details).

Mr. Charles Kofi Fekpe (FCCA, PGCert) Writer; Speaker; Fund Manager at Crown Agents (UK); Director, CFekpeConsulting Ltd All comments to Email: fekpe@hotmail.com | Web: www.cfekpeconsulting.com | Skype : charlesfekpe | Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fekpe | Twitter: charlesfekpe