There is a demographic bulge across Sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 11 million young people joining the job market every year for the next decade.Everyone, it seems, is aware of the problems graduate unemployment and skills mismatches, even somewhat belatedly the universities themselves. But what are the solutions? Given the prominence of the issue it is surprising how few and far between concrete actions are.
In 2012, the British Council commissioned a three-year research and advocacy project precisely for this end. The Universities Employability and Inclusive Development project, run by a partnership of five universities in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK, aimed at generating new insights into the conundrum of how universities can best prepare their students for their working lives.
Unsurprisingly, the research identified a range of critical problems: strained infrastructure in universities, high student-lecturer ratio, predominance of rote learning, lack of practical application of knowledge and poorly staffed careers services. These factors have led to widespread dissatisfaction of employers with the attributes of graduates – particularly with regard 21st century skills of problem solving, critical thinking, and written and oral communication.
“This incredibly valuable research is the first long-term assessment of what constitutes good ‘Graduate-ness’ in Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging economies. With millions of young people entering tertiary education in the next decade, our systems need to adapt faster to better meet their needs, and those of the employers who will want to recruit them,” says Colm McGivern, Country Director, British Council South Africa.
The research also uncovered some inspiring examples of practice across the region. Surveyed students expressed a strong commitment to giving back to their own communities, highlighting the need for skills for social enterprise as well as business entrepreneurship. In South Africa, the post-apartheid expansion of the public sector and the impact of policies designed to improve equality and equity and to overturn past racially-based employment practices, have resulted in high numbers of black graduates joining the public service. Still, an overall shift towards self-employment can be seen in the country.
“There’s an interesting burst of entrepreneurship shown in the data, and we can see how the several institutions have responded to that trend. What this report also shows is how critical it is for universities to keep pace with the rapidly evolving demands of students and employers, and the growth in power and pervasiveness of technology,” said McGivern.
The research highlights that ‘add-ons’ to university courses are unlikely to change the situation: a transformation is needed at the heart of the student experience, including teaching and learning in regular degree courses.
Equity is also central to dealing with this problem. Not only do students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to get into university in the first place, they then face an uphill battle in accessing opportunities to enhance employability, and further difficulties when entering the workplace. Targeted support is needed within the university to ensure all students have access to opportunities to develop their skills and engage with employers.
Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere suffer from a critical lack of statistical information in higher education, with generally insufficient enrolment data and alumni records for tracking the progress of graduates as they enter the labour market. In order to move beyond impressionistic claims about the crisis of graduate unemployment, a much sturdier evidence base is needed, starting with basic statistical information, and moving on to the more nuanced research studies that can unlock the complexities of the challenge.
Finding and holding down a job is crucial for the individuals involved: but at the end of the day, Sub-Saharan Africa needs graduates who will do more than that, and make a contribution to the inclusive development of society – development that benefits all. For this reason, employability must also involve ethics and citizenship, with graduates understanding and acting on their obligations to all in society, including those not lucky enough to go to university themselves. If universities can make this happen, then the continent will move beyond an elite and rarefied higher education system, towards one that will serve as a creative motor for a prosperous and just society.
For more information, please contact:
Nan Yeld, Senior Adviser: Higher Education Development British Council
Nan.Yeld@britishcouncil.org.za | M +27 (0)82 6025996 I W +27 (0)21 4606668