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11 Aug 2015 14:45
While Sub-Saharan countries have increased the number of children in primary school by 75% since 2000, university enrollment is at 5% overall. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
have increased the number of children in primary school by a remarkable 75%
since 2000, according to a recent Unesco report. However, university enrollment
in the region is an abysmal 5% overall – the lowest rate in the globe, despite
There might be a natural inclination to respond to this gap by
rapidly building up universities across the continent. readying students for the job market as well as they should. Africa, uniquely,
has an opportunity to leapfrog ahead of the rest of the world by developing a
higher education system that is nimble and responsive to market needs.
What would such a system look
like? Here are the four organising principles for a higher and vocational
education system of the future that would successfully serve the African
primary school graduates of today.
Soft skills have become the
primary requirement for jobs across all sectors. Traditional go-to sectors for
employment such as agriculture and manufacturing are increasingly automating
basic jobs, while requiring employees to handle more complex functions that
rely heavily on soft skills such as problem-solving. The services sector, which
already provides over 40% of jobs on the continent, depends on soft skills such
as customer orientation. Yet Africa’s current educational systems do not help
students develop these skills.
Pedagogical systems need to
change to ensure that soft skills such as problem solving, decision making,
customer orientation, teamwork, creativity, and entrepreneurialism are a focal
point of curriculums. Programmes such as the Creative Generation, International Baccalaureate and Culima Institute are developing models that enable students
to develop more comprehensive skills at the primary, secondary and vocational
levels – they need to be scaled up rapidly across Africa.
The biggest advantage of
developing soft skills is that they are highly portable across industries. As
evolving technology continues to disrupt industries, employees will be able to
switch to new jobs without difficulty. More importantly, they will be able to
pursue more dynamic career pathways, switching between sectors while working
towards a long-term career goal that is tied to a competency rather than a
sector. In this world, an individual may start developing her customer
orientation skillset as a business process outsourcing (BPO) call centre agent
or a sales clerk at a retail store, and then step into a supervisory or managerial
position at a hotel or a tour operator. While she would need some retraining to
learn the new sector, the customer service skillset will be valued across
Partner with employers
A cross-industry model working
to develop transferable skills rather than industry-specific certifications is
new, and it requires a close partnership with employers to ensure that it is
effective. Organisations such as Knod and Kepler are leading the way in
developing such an employer-centric model in Africa.
What makes Knod successful is
it integrates employers into the teaching process. Students spend every term
working on a project with a different employer and each project has learning
objectives that are tied to the curriculum of a three-year degree. Employers
are heavily invested in the project, which ensures that they are focusing on
developing skills that are relevant to the workplace. Students graduate after
three years with a degree from an accredited university (since all the projects
are mapped to the university’s curriculum), as well as three years of project
experience across different industries.
Standardise competency assessments
The portability of skills
across sectors will require competency-based assessments that employers can use
to assess soft skills acquired in other industries. Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has stitched together a battery of assessments that measure soft
skills among high-performing employees, and then search for similar
characteristics in the pool of applicants. This matching mechanism enables
employers to find talent that is better-suited to their requirements. Other
organisations such as Mozilla are developing skills badges that can be
collected and transferred across employers.
Once common credentialing
systems are established, platforms such as LinkedIn can be used to make that
information available to all employers and enable employers to search
candidates rapidly. This would be a powerful extension to the recommendation
system already offered by LinkedIn.
Rethink education finance
Finally, this system also
offers an opportunity to rethink education financing. Unlike existing education
systems, this approach does not require a large upfront investment in higher
education that requires many years to pay off. Just like pay-as-you-go cellphones,
the system would allow students to learn skills in smaller chunks over longer
periods of time. As a result, students from low-income families would be able
to finance their own education rather than relying on government funding, which
is already spread too thin.
However, students will still
require access to small education loans that they will be able to pay back
quickly. The market for uncollateralised student loans does not exist today,
and donors or patient investors would need to set up pilot loan pools to enable
commercial banks to understand risks and become comfortable with innovative
lending models. Organisations such as WAVE Hospitality are funding these
student loans from their own balance sheets for now, but a vibrant loan market
could help them scale faster.
Africa has a unique opportunity
to develop a nimble higher education system that is more responsive to market
needs, while being extremely cost-efficient. By promoting soft skills
development, employer partnerships, apprenticeship programs, open source
credentialing systems, and innovative financing mechanisms, governments and
donors can help jumpstart this ecosystem, help Africa leapfrog more developed
countries, and create a blueprint for a best-in-class higher education model
for the rest of the world.
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