More than six in 10 university graduates in East Africa are “half-baked”, according to shocking survey released by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) last year.
The findings elicited strong support and sharp condemnation in equal measure, with universities in particular arguing that the findings were exaggerated.
The survey sought the views of employers in the five East African Community (EAC) countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, on the employability of graduates from local universities.
Between 51% to 63% of the graduates were found to be “half-baked”, “unfit for jobs” and “lacking job market skills”. The worst records were in Uganda (63%) and Tanzania (61%).
Though the report was rubbished by many universities, in many parts of Africa the warning signs have been there, particularly from professional bodies.
For example, in Nigeria in 2010, the accreditation of several academic departments in over 20 universities was withdrawn by the national regulatory body, the National Universities Council, on grounds of lack of infrastructure and suitably qualified academic staff, stated an article by Goolam Mohamedbhai from the Centre for International Higher Education.
In 2011, the Engineering Registration Board of Kenya refused to recognise the engineering degrees from three leading public universities in Kenya because of poor curricula, lack of qualified lecturers and a shortage of appropriate facilities.
In the same year, on similar grounds, the Council of Legal Education of Kenya rejected the applications to practice law from graduates of several public and private universities in Kenya.
In South Africa it has been reported, Mohamedbhai writes, that several law firms had found some LLB graduates were unable “to draw affidavits and pleadings as they lack both numeracy and literacy skills”.
The problem is largely a result of the rapid — and sometimes poorly regulated — expansion of higher education in recent years
Between 2000 and 2010, enrolments in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled, from 2.3 million to 5.2 million.
The pressure is expected to continue to grow in the next few decades owing to the youth bulge facing many African countries — data from the UN’s World Population Prospects indicates that in 2010 the population in the 18–23 age group in sub-Saharan Africa was 100.8 million, and is projected to grow by more than 50% by 2030.
Even if high rates of education expansion are maintained for the next two decades, rapid population growth won’t necessarily be matched by high enrolment rates — today, just 7% of the 18-23 age group in Africa is enrolled in university or college, compared to 29% globally.
But even at current levels of access, public universities report inadequate facilities and numbers of teaching staff, says a 2014 report by the British Council on graduate employability in sub-Saharan Africa. There are already 50% more students per lecturer in sub-Saharan Africa than the global average, which places a strain on teaching quality.
At the major public universities in Kenya, for example, there are now as many as 64 students for every member of academic staff, and facilities such as libraries, laboratories and workshops are overstretched and poorly equipped. This means that rote learning inevitably becomes commonplace.
For those who can afford them, many upcoming private universities, whether of a liberal arts model (such as Ashesi in Ghana) or a business model (such as Strathmore in Kenya), are providing a much richer experience of learning, enhancing both the so-called “hard” and “soft” skills.
It has been estimated that, on average, it takes a university graduate in Kenya and Tanzania at least five years to secure a job, and in Nigeria the unemployment rate is as high as 23.1% for those with undergraduate degrees.
This inability to quickly transition into the job market is no fault of the students or universities; it is the structural nature of most African economies, where only 16% of jobs are in the formal sector, the rest in family-owned firms and the informal sector.
Even so, there is widespread concern about the work readiness of graduates, the British Council report states. While employers in the four countries surveyed — Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa — are generally satisfied with the academic knowledge of students, they perceive significant gaps in their IT skills, personal qualities (such as. reliability) and transferable skills (such as team working and problem solving).
Research in Nigeria showed a significant “skills mismatch” between employer requirements and graduates’ performance in the workplace, particularly in relation to communication, IT, decision-making and critical thinking.
However, most claims about graduate attributes are anecdotal, the British Council says. Beyond completion of degree courses, there is a lack of solid data on the knowledge, skills and values that graduates actually possess.
They mostly come from surveys of employer perceptions, like the IUCEA one, but even these are lacking in some countries. There is consequently little opportunity to compare across contexts, and over time.
Still, universities are taking the problem seriously enough to do something about it. Responses to the employability challenge in four sub-Saharan Africa countries have centred around updating of curricula and orienting course content towards employer needs; expansion of work placement programmes; and introduction of entrepreneurship courses.
Nigeria, for example, has made entrepreneurship education compulsory in all federal institutions. There’s a strong focus on ensuring their students are job-creators, not mere job seekers.
“Delivering academically astute students is just not good enough anymore. Exposing researchers and students to opportunities to follow alternative careers and develop as entrepreneurs broadens the minds of students. Entrepreneurial universities both attract and deliver broad-minded students,” says Anita Nel, chief executive of InnovUS, the technology transfer company of Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Experiences outside the classroom can be pivotal in enhancing employability, the British Council report states. In a study conducted in the Western Cape, South Africa, for example, after field of study, the factor in university background most influential in securing successful employment outcomes was students’ prior engagement in extramural activities.
Experiential learning in the community — service learning, volunteering and the like — as well as on campus, through student societies and other extracurricular activities should thus be encouraged, as they help develop “soft” skills that are so crucial in the real world, yet nearly impossible to teach in class.
It would also form more socially conscious graduates, an increasingly important aspect of being a good global citizen.
“Clearly, graduate attributes should go beyond technical knowledge. It should include qualities that prepare students to be agents for social good,” said the late Professor Hayman Russel Botman, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in a speech at a Unesco-China-Africa higher education summit before he passed away last year.
“Too often entrepreneurship is equated solely to economic growth. We need to focus on the bigger picture. We need to consider entrepreneurship’s contribution to societal development. It is therefore also linked to social and economic justice.
“In the end, the world needs graduates and employers who are not just interested in self-enrichment, but in making the world a better place for all.”