While young graduates in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa do all they can to make themselves employable, they still face significant hurdles in landing jobs. Tristan McCowan of the UCL Institute of Education summarises interim findings of a three-year research project that aims to support the development of African universities.
What students in Africa think of the graduate employability ‘crisis’
Concerns about graduate employment and the kinds of skills graduates bring to the workplace are widespread across African countries. In Nigeria, the unemployment rate for university graduates (23 per cent) is higher than that for primary or secondary school leavers, while newspapers and websites are replete with reports of employer dissatisfaction with their new recruits. Yet how do students themselves view their situation? Do they share the bleak outlook of mainstream society? And how do they evaluate the preparation being given to them by their universities?
These questions are at the heart of the three-year research study Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development commissioned by the British Council. The project focuses on the contribution that universities can make to graduate employability in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, and for comparative purposes, the UK. Emerging findings from the second year of the project — involving a survey of more than 5,000 final-year students, and interviews and focus groups in universities across the four Sub-Saharan African countries — have uncovered some illuminating perspectives on the issue.
The new generation has different aspirations
Students view their employment ideals and options in ways that are very different from the previous generation. As much as 65 per cent of students surveyed in Kenya see themselves going into self-employment. While the proportion opting for conventional public and private sector work is higher in the other three countries, overall a significant shift can be observed towards entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Furthermore, portfolio careers are becoming increasingly popular: in one private university in Ghana, over 80 per cent of surveyed students aspired to a career involving a combination of public, private and self-employed work.
Employment is important, but so is contributing to society
Students, naturally, are concerned about their employment prospects. They recognise the challenging nature of the job market, the competition for valued forms of employment and understand the need to gain diverse skills and experience to improve their chances of recruitment. Yet they view their lives in ways that go far beyond merely getting a job. They also show a strong commitment to social justice and using what they have learnt at university to make a broader contribution to society. In South Africa, for example, students previously denied the opportunity of accessing higher education in the apartheid regime are strongly aware of the need to give back to their communities of origin. As one student stated:
‘[Y]ou make clear choices as a graduate and as a person…. Social citizenship, you should be able to care for people around you in a society, you should know that business should be able to contribute something to the people around it, you should also contribute something to the people that you work with.’
Opportunities are still not equal
In all four of the countries, access to higher education is still for the few. But even amongst those who do get into university, there are marked inequalities. The historical prestige accruing to certain elite universities gives their students a significant leg up in the job market, as illustrated by a South African student: ‘I’d say that for us, we are a bubble, we know privileged people, we have seen and met people who will say, “call me after graduation”, we are in that sort of circle’. At the same time, students from regular universities struggle, even when they have the same skill-set and determination. Students are also strongly aware of the advantages brought by personal connections. Of the factors considered as barriers to employment, lack of networks and lack of family connections were seen to be the most influential across all of the countries.
Mixed reviews for universities
Despite the damning account of many universities given in the popular press, students were not overly negative about their institutions. While they saw problems in the lack of practical application of their disciplinary knowledge, and in some cases a lack of careers support, in general they valued the learning opportunities provided for them and saw university as a precious opportunity. Yet there is still much for universities to do in terms of tackling the evident difficulties of infrastructure and staff-student ratio, ensuring high quality of taught courses as well as the broader learning opportunities sought by students.
In summary, students show themselves highly aware of the changing nature of the employment market and the need to develop a broad range of attributes including disciplinary knowledge, so-called ‘soft skills’ and practical experience. They also show themselves committed to using these attributes to make a positive contribution to their communities. Yet while some students are already accessing the diverse kinds of skills development courses, extracurricular activities and work placements necessary to equip themselves for this landscape, much more needs to be done to support them, particularly those in less prestigious institutions.
The final phase of the research project will draw out more fully these implications for university practice, as well as showcase a range of new practices already under way in universities in the four African countries. Strengthening the evidence base and engaging institutions in careful reflection on their practice will be essential to ensuring that higher education contributes to the societal goals of employability, citizenship and inclusion.
Education world leaders can discuss graduate employment in Sub-Saharan Africa and other topics related to internationalising higher education at our Going Global conference in London on 1-2 June 2015.
Read our previous research: Can higher education solve Africa’s job crisis? (PDF)