Wednesday 30 April 2014

Can Higher Education solve Africa's Job Crisis? - Graduate Employability in sub-Saharan Africa

There is a potential ‘time-bomb’ in sub-Saharan Africa countries of pent-up demand for higher education and graduate employment, new research by the British Council has found.

Due to a demographic bulge an estimated 11 million young people in the region will be joining the job market every year for the next decade.

To stimulate the economy and generate jobs, more of these young people need to be equipped with high level skills. But despite rapid expansion of the higher education system in these countries, with enrolments more than doubling in the decade to 2010, participation levels among the population are still only at seven per cent, compared to 29 per cent worldwide.

Even among those who do enter higher education, the prospects for work are not good with graduate unemployment rates running high in many countries. In Nigeria, where the government recently declared itself to have Africa’s biggest economy, nearly a quarter of graduates are unemployed.

The ‘Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development’ research, which is the most substantial multi-country research project on higher education and employability in sub-Saharan Africa to date, was launched today at Going Global, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education, hosted this year in Miami. The project, began in 2013, will run to 2016 and is led by the University of London’s Institute of Education. The project will focus on Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and for comparative purposes, the UK.

The research policy brief, published at Going Global, notes that “Africa stands at a crossroads in relation to higher education development. If countries can effectively invest in enabling access for increasing numbers of ambitious school leavers, while at the same time ensuring quality provision and successful transition to the work place, then the sub-continent will reap substantial benefits from the youth bulge. Failing to do so -- through maintaining highly restricted access to university level education, or allowing massification to be accompanied by deteriorating quality -- will hamper economic growth, weaken democracy and good governance, and leave a generation without the opportunity to pursue their ambitions for a better future.”

The research has so far found that employers in the region complain that graduates are not equipped with the right workplace and transferable skills. This situation poses a high level of economic and social risk with growing numbers of urban youth without meaningful occupation.

Universities and the higher education system in these countries have a crucial role to play in helping to address this situation. But they are also part of the problem, in that it appears they are not properly preparing students for the workplace or providing enough places, particularly for women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The sector itself needs to tackle a number of challenges including:

1) Improving the quality of taught courses. Quality has suffered as a result of rapid expansion, with extensive evidence of poor learning environments and high student-lecturer ratios.

2) Broadening the learning experience for students to make them more employable -- through extra-curricular activities such as voluntary work.

3) Providing better information for students about career opportunities, providing more chances for them to interact with employers, and introducing skills enhancement programmes in areas such as entrepreneurship and communication skills.

Tony Reilly, the British Council’s Director in Kenya and regional higher education manager, said “Higher education is becoming increasingly important in the context of the knowledge society, and governments and development agencies alike are showing greater recognition of higher education’s critical contribution to development in the post-2015 agenda. However, if Africa is to harness the enormous potential of the next generation, the issue of graduate employability needs to be resolved.

“Given the significant lack of rigorous research in the four countries in question, it is essential to develop a strong evidence base on the subject as a means of informing national policies, institutional reform and programme interventions. We hope this research will help the UK’s institutions form sustainable partnerships with counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, and that these partnerships developed in the course of the project will also act as significant nexuses of change.”

Dr Tristan McCowan of the Institute of Education and author of the research policy brief, said: “Reviews of evidence from across countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have shown that higher education can play a crucial role in development and has a greater impact than was previously believed. Yet for universities to fulfil their potential, concerted efforts must be made to enhance their quality across the board. Central to this task is ensuring a rich learning environment for students. Critical, reflexive learning opportunities must be provided in degree courses, along with forms of assessment that promote creativity rather than rote learning.

“Furthermore, students should be encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities in the campus, and experiential learning through voluntary work and industrial attachments. Ensuring employability of graduates and their positive contribution to society as citizens depends on this process of transformation in universities.”

Notes to Editor

The report will be presented and analysed at the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international higher education, in Miami, on Wednesday 30 April at 13:30 local time.

The session will be chaired by Tony Reilly OBE, Country Director Kenya, British Council, and the panellists will be Prof. Judith Bahemuka, UNESCO/UNITWIN Chair on Women, Education, Community Health and Sustainable Development, University of Nairobi, Kenya; Phiwe Mathe, President, Student Representative Council, South African Free University, South Africa; Dr Tristan McCowan, Senior Lecturer, Education and International Development, Institute of Education, UK; Cathy Sims, Executive Director, South African Graduate Recruiters Association (SAGRA), South Africa; Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi, Cabinet Secretary, Higher Education, Kenya.

For interviews please contact Tim Sowula at or +447771 718 135

The project is led by the Institute of Education, University of London, in partnership with the University of the Free State, South Africa; Ibadan University, Nigeria; Kenyatta University, Kenya; and the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana.

·         The British Council’s ‘Going Global’ conference is the leading annual global event for leaders of international education

·         The conference brings the global experts to share the latest thinking on the issues that really matter for the future of higher education around the world.

·         More than 1,000 leaders in higher education, business and government will gather in Miami Beach from April 29 – May 1. This is the first time the conference has been held in the Americas. Over 70 countries will be represented by a delegation including 125 university presidents, vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors, and government ministers.

·         Nine pieces of new research will be presented at this year’s conference

·         The British Council’s work keeps the UK at the heart of the international HE landscape and central to its development - and Going Global is a vital part of this strategy


Follow Going Global on Twitter: @hegoingglobal


Going Global media contact details

In London, Tim Sowula, +44 7771 718 135

In Washington DC, Alex Dimsdale, or +1 202 258 0384

In Mexico City, Daniel Chavez Heras, or +52 (55) 52631981

In Rio de Janiero, Ana Signorini, +55 21 2172 5202

About the British Council

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