By Munyaradzi Makoni
Graduate unemployment rates have spiralled across Sub-Saharan Africa as too few graduates gain the skills needed to find work. In many countries employers complain of a lack of basic, technical and transferable skills, says a new report by the British Council.
Preparing graduates for the workplace is an enormous challenge that needs different government departments, universities, the private sector and society to simultaneously pull together.
The British-funded study, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development, led by the Institute of Education at the University of London, was released at the “Going Global” conference held in Miami in the United States from 29 April to 1 May.
It focuses on Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. All four countries face the common challenge of how to ensure universities provide high quality preparation for young people.
The study was carried out in partnership with Kenyatta University in Kenya, the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana, the University of the Free State in South Africa and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
It is part of a multi-country research project on higher education and employability that started in 2013 and ends in 2016.
The project aims to provide policy-makers with compelling evidence on how they can build a stronger link between their higher education sectors and the labour market, ensuring that graduates generate the growth and strong societies Africa needs if it is to realise its potential.
Graduate unemployment status
The assumption that merely being a university graduate guarantees easy passage into the job market is not entirely true.
“Graduate capacities are influenced by learning experiences outside the university, particularly in the family and previous schooling. Second, a range of factors beyond one’s employability attributes affect entry into employment, such as the availability of jobs, graduates’ social networks and possible discrimination,” says the report.
In Nigeria, the unemployment rate is as high as 23.1% for graduates with first degrees. In South Africa the percentage is much lower at 5.9% – but joblessness is higher for graduates with diploma or certificate qualifications.
Statistics specifically for university graduates are not available in Ghana and Kenya, but across the 25- to 29-year-old age group the unemployment rate is 41.6% in Ghana and 15.7% in Kenya. Estimates are that it takes a university graduate five years to get a job in Kenya.
Generally the unemployment reality is worse than is indicated by the figures, says the report, since many of those in employment are not engaged in graduate-level work or are not in work that corresponds to their degree area.
Reasons for unemployment
Employers are generally satisfied with the disciplinary knowledge of students but there are gaps in information technology skills, personal qualities such as reliability and transferable skills like team-working and problem-solving.
Research in Nigeria revealed a significant ‘skills mismatch’ between employer requirements and graduates’ displays of skills in the workplace, particularly in relation to communication, decision-making and critical thinking.
A review commissioned by Britain’s Department for International Development, which recently assessed existing research on the impact of tertiary education on development in various contexts, found positive effects on macro-economic growth, individual incomes, broader capabilities and strengthening institutions.
But the impact was hamstrung by factors including quality. Some universities in Sub-Saharan Africa are of the highest quality, but limited public funding militates against their success.
For example, at the major public universities in Kenya there are now as many as 64 students for every member of academic staff. In some cases lecturers lack adequate qualifications and preparation themselves, and pedagogy is transmission-based. Universities are affected by a lack of physical resources including buildings, laboratories and libraries.
“While South Africa has better infrastructure, there are low completion rates, with 40% of students dropping out in the first year and only 15% finishing in the allotted time,” says the report.
Lack of evidence for policy
One of the biggest challenges facing governments is lack of robust research and evidence on which to base policy, says the report. Many countries are said to lack basic statistical information relating to higher education enrolment, quality and outcomes.
However, the report points out, in relation to graduate employability lack of evidence is a global phenomenon with only a small number of high-income countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia having developed data sets in this area.
With the partial exception of South Africa, other African countries lack strong information on the labour market, on transitions from university to work, and on the link between disciplinary area and employment prospects.
Generally, beyond completion of degree courses there is a severe lack of information on the knowledge, skills and values that graduates actually possess, which gives little room to compare across contexts or over periods of time.
A strong need for research assessing student perceptions of university quality and their own employability needs is also required, the report says.
Dealing with the issues
The four Sub-Saharan Africa countries researched have centred their solutions around updating curricula and tailoring course content towards employer needs, expanding work placement programmes and introducing entrepreneurship courses – but the impact of these initiatives is not yet known, says the report.
Solving the graduate unemployment problem needs coordinated efforts between diverse segments of government and society to enhance the quality of university education, both to improve individual life chances and also to contribute to the broader development of society, fostering innovation and strengthening citizenship and democracy.
The report says extensive evidence of the poor learning environment for students in Sub-Saharan African countries exists.
Decreasing the student-to-lecturer ratio, improving infrastructure, staff development and listening to the student voice in relation to teaching and learning, could contribute towards solutions.
Experiences outside the classroom could be pivotal in enhancing employability, such as students’ prior engagement in extra-mural activities as employers increasingly value global perspectives and understanding of diversity.
More specific provision is also required to inform students about career opportunities, to enable them to reflect on their personal aptitudes and develop them further where necessary.
Closer links with employers are urged, to update curricula and involve industry representatives in course delivery and quality work placements.
The report notes that creating university systems of the highest quality requires political will and resources, but also research and analysis.
“A university degree certificate can open doors, but without a rich learning experience underpinning the degree, it cannot change lives, release potential and transform societies,” the report concludes.