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Friday, 15 November 2013

How competent are Zambian graduates?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Sue Clayton, a lawyer and regular contributor to ZE Facebook discussions.
I think it is highly presumptuous to accept, on the basis that many believe it to be true, that Zambian graduates are losing out to foreigner graduates [as implied in a previous blog]. I think the key here is competence which we must not confuse with ability.

The world over intelligent “educated” people are incompetent, either down to poor education and training or their own attitudes or the environment in which they operate. We need an open discussion about competence because having a degree does not confer competence and does not entitle one to anything – but it should demand “professionalism” of the holder.

I believe professionalism encompasses competent performance of one’s job, being honest, and working for the best interests on the employer within the law. It means working until the job is complete whatever it takes, remembering one’s duty to one’s client or customer or patient. It requires maintaining and always striving to improve standards, proving oneself, humility and co-operation.

Professionalism means accepting responsibility even in the face of disaster. Above all having an opinion or position that one can defend but change or adapt in the face of a valid counter-argument. A professional is ultimately paid for one’s opinion and one’s willingness to accept responsibility for it. The key to a professional opinion is comprehending the issues and alternative opinions, applying critical thinking and then communicating one’s opinion so that it is understood.

Competence comes from using a degree, applying the knowledge and skills acquired, and accepting that a degree is merely a starting point on a life-long road of inquiry to find relevant solutions. If the knowledge imparted in a degree is incomplete or no longer relevant or even questionable and if one is NOT encouraged to continually inquire but rather one is expected to parrot the lecturers’ positions, then one’s degree places one at a disadvantage in the competence stakes.

If one’s communication skills (reading comprehensively and writing articulately) are limited because of poor education from Grade 1, one’s competence is compromised. If one’s society demands unquestioning respect for elders and those in senior positions, discouraging inquiry and innovation, then competence is compromised. If one assumes that a degree entitles one to anything, that is complacency and has no place in professionalism. So one may be perfectly intelligent and able but poorly educated (in the holistic sense) and therefore incompetent as a professional.

I know when I graduated I was not competent and even now I daily question my competence. I know for example that the School of Mines at UNZA was (maybe still is) teaching a geological model of the Copperbelt that was discarded ages ago. I know the UNZA School of Law had limited access to academic texts, law reports (whole voumes of law reports were missing from the library) and academic journals when I was there.

I have sat through professional practice lectures here where we were told we were the “noble” profession and therefore somehow above all others, without telling us how to ensure we were noble and superior, except to avoid some social behaviours that may bring our profession into disrepute (quite a lot of emphasis placed on this), with little mention of our professional competence.

I have sat through lectures where questioning the lecturer leads to some uncomfortable moments even if one is merely seeking clarification. I have been told by some lecturers that to pass professional qualifying exams the key is understanding the mind of the lecturers (not the course content it would seem!). I have seen documents from professionals across the board that are incomprehensible because of poor language usage.

I think we need an open and frank discussion about competence without people feeling they are being judged as “stupid” or discriminated against because of course it is not one’s fault if one has been incompetently educated and incompetence is not peculiar to Zambia.
Sue Clayton | Guest Writer
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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