Higher Education growth in sub-Saharan Africa

30 April 2014

Population growth estimates in sub-Saharan Africa are predicting that 11 million young people will be joining the job market every year for the next decade. To promote growth of the economy and further jobs, more of these future employees need high level skills. But despite rapid expansion of the higher education system in the region, 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. Higher education provision is particularly low for women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

New research by the British Council shows that even among those who do enter higher education, graduate unemployment rates can still run high. For example, in Nigeria, where the government recently declared itself to have Africa’s biggest economy, nearly a quarter of graduates are unemployed. This situation poses a high level of economic and social risk with growing numbers of urban youth without meaningful occupation.

The research may also partly explain these high unemployment rates amongst graduates. Early findings report that many employers complain graduates are not equipped with the right workplace and transferable skills. The higher education system in these countries has a crucial role to play in helping to address this situation by properly preparing students for the workplace. 

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.”

The British Council is working with the University of London’s Institute of Education on the most substantial multi-country research project on higher education and employability in sub-Saharan Africa to date. The ‘Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development’ research, starting in 2013 and running for three years, will focus on Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and for comparative purposes, the UK. This piece of work was launched at Going Global 2014, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education, on 30 April.


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