Economic stagnation and high youth unemployment in developed countries have contributed to emerging concerns over whether traditional models of higher education are capable of producing employable graduates, the International Finance Corporation's 6th International Private Education Conference heard in San Francisco this month.
The high-level conference had the theme "Rethinking Education, Shaping the Future", and brought together education experts, and investors and employers in private education.
The conference highlighted how technologies, scientific applications and innovations in education could improve the prospects of many graduates who are currently worried that their degrees might not lead to good jobs.
Conference sessions covered a wide range of topics "from access and affordability, quality, employability and skills of the 21st century, impact of globalisation, the role of education entrepreneurs and results measurement," said the International Finance Corporation, or IFC.
HE and labour market disconnect
High on the agenda was how universities could help students to master skills.
Leuny Morell, provost and chief academic officer at the NEU - a new, practical engineering university being developed in partnership with the University of New Haven in the United States - said the main issue was how to eradicate the unintentional disconnect between traditional higher education and the labour market.
"For instance, universities must bridge the gap between education and the world of today by teaching competencies and professional skills that are needed to solve societal problems," Morell told University World News.
The former president of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies pointed out that universities should also try to identify talented students, especially in science and engineering.
She explained that there was a direct relationship between science, engineering, technology and innovation and economic development and sustainability.
"Countries that will invest in talented graduates in innovation, science, technology and engineering will undoubtedly achieve economic and social progress in comparison to their counterparts that will be unwilling to grow their human talent pool," said Morell.
Unfortunately, the level of such investments and the number of science and engineering graduates do not alone necessarily mean quality or obtaining desired outcomes, because a well qualified talent pool is becoming increasingly hard to find in some parts of the world.
Quality is all-important
According to the new thinking emerging in higher education, if students acquire degrees or obsolete knowledge that cannot be applied in the modern world, then it is a high-level waste of time and money.
University degrees are still highly associated with employment prospects and even providing perfect pathways for career opportunities.
Stressing the importance of the acquisition of skills in higher education, Dr Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a key speaker at the IFC conference, said the future of every country would depend on the skills of its people.
In his recent study, Economic Growth in Developing Countries: The role of human capital, Hanushek noted that the focus on a high quality talent pool as a driver of economic growth had put a spotlight on school attainment and the importance of cognitive skills.
Hanushek noted that whereas developed countries might adapt their higher education to the needs of the 21st century quickly, this would be difficult for countries in the developing world.
The case of Africa
Such is the case in Sub-Saharan African countries, where it had been generally easier to expand access to education rather than to improve quality.
According to Hanushek, the critical talent pool in Sub-Saharan Africa had been shrinking because simple approaches to improving the quality of education had not proved very effective.
He noted that the inability of higher education in the region to produce human capital required for development was embedded within the entire education system. If students did not have basic cognitive skills when they got to higher education, they could not learn at a level that would make them competitive internationally.
"Consequently, without improving school quality, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will find it difficult to improve their long run economic performance," Hanushek told University World News in an interview.
The IFC conference was a global event, but its agenda was perhaps most significant for Africa when it reflected on graduate unemployment.
This is a major problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Simon Gicharu, founder and president of Mount Kenya University, East Africa's largest private university.
"Beyond the unemployment crisis, in the absence of adequate labour laws and social safety nets, graduates from African universities are often under-employed, too often compelled to take low-paying jobs for their survival," said Gicharu in an interview with University World News in Nairobi.
Gicharu agreed with speakers who noted that African countries were at a crossroads in matters related to improving the quality of higher education. "So much pressure is on learning facilities in both public and private universities due to unmet demand for higher education."
All about the skills
The IFC conference rooted for advanced innovations in learning platforms in tablet technology, mobile applications, virtual and cyberspace learning networks, and advanced science, technology and engineering laboratories and other cutting edge facilities.
Governments and private investors in higher education everywhere will have to undertake self-appraisal if they are to prepare young people for the jobs market of the 21st century, conference participants agreed.
According to Hanushek, it is all about the skills and much of the IFC conference focused on how to provide labour market opportunities to the more than 200 million unemployed youth globally by bridging the gap between learning outcomes and job requirements.
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