AFRICA-MIDDLE EAST: The jobless graduate time-bomb

Unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East have offered an important warning about the dangers of youth and graduate unemployment. First came the Tunisian time-bomb, then Egypt and Yemem. And there have been rumblings in Algeria, Libya and Morocco.

Demonstrators and analysts have pointed out that one of the root causes of the current trouble is lack of jobs for youths and university graduates, and the expansion of education systems that produce growing numbers of graduates without simultaneous economic development to provide employment for them.

It is time to find effective strategies to tackle youth unemployment, and to produce industry-ready graduates.

Some facts and figures

According to the 2010 Africa Economic Outlook more than 60% of Africa's population is under the age of 25 and this is expected to increase to 75% by 2015. Africa will also account for 29% of the world's population aged 15-24 by 2050, up from 9% in 1950, according to United Nations population figures.

About 7.2% of Africa's youths are unemployed and an additional 46.9% are underemployed or inactive, as reported by the International Labor Organization, the ILO.

Statistics released by the ILO in January, in a report entitled Global Employment Trends 2011: The challenge of a jobs recovery revealed that youths make up 60% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, more than 40% of working adults live on less than US$2 per day, and 24% of youths are without gainful employment. In Algeria the figure stands at 40%.

According to the most recent IMF data, Egypt - an incubator of much of the Arab world's talent in the arts, media, law and science - has overall unemployment of 8.9%. But joblessness is 25.4% among those under 25 years. Egyptian high-school graduates account for 42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed. In Tunisia, overall unemployment is 14.2% and youth unemployment 30.3%.

Educational reasons for youth unemployment

In Africa and the Middle East, higher education has been seen as a way to fill skilled manpower gaps, but it has often proved inappropriate to development needs.

For example, teaching methods and curricula have often not been adjusted to new requirements and demands for trained manpower, especially in the private sector. Governments no longer automatically hire university graduates, and employers in the private sector are demanding graduates with different and higher level skills and knowledge.

Perhaps one reflection of inappropriate or under-performing higher education is that while some of the world's oldest universities are in North Africa, including Morocco's University of Al-Karaouine and Egypt's Al-Azhar University, the region's institutions do not rate highly in global rankings.

International reports have demonstrated the urgent need for higher education reforms to produce industry-ready graduates.

The World Bank and OECD's Reviews of National Policies for Education: Higher education in Egypt 2010 pointed out that "a chronic oversupply of university graduates, especially in the humanities and social sciences" was mixed with complaints from employers that they could not find workers with the skills they needed.

Lack of jobs for university graduates has also fuelled the brain drain. According to 2004 study by Cairo's Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, the Arab world accounts for about a third of the total brain drain from developing countries to the West, and Arab countries lose half of their newly-qualified medical doctors, 23% of engineers and 15% of scientists.

At the continental level, 23,000 university graduates leave Africa each year. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that every African professional migrant costs his or her nation US$184,000 and that the brain drain is costing Africa up to US$4 billion a year.

Actions taken against unemployment

Amid the recent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, governments and regional organisations have announced measures to create economic opportunities and jobs for youths and graduates. According to the ILO's 2010 report, Arab countries must create more than 50 million jobs in the next decade to stabilise employment.

In response, Arab states have approved a US$2 billion initiative to help young Arabs to start small enterprises, with priority given to less developed countries such as Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen.

The Arab fund initiative was included in the declaration issued at the 2nd Arab Economic, Development and Social Summit held in Sharm-El-Sheikh in Egypt on 19 January.

"We demonstrate our commitment to providing opportunities for Arab youth to enable them to participate actively in society and to provide them with employment opportunities," said the declaration:

"We've discussed ways to overcome obstacles to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and the importance of activating the development of education, scientific and technical research, and innovation."

Under the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, financial support will be provided for university graduates to transfer idea into products and projects.

On 16 January the Islamic Development Bank and International Finance Corporation signed an agreement to lead an initiative that will engage the private sector in creating new opportunities for employment-based education and enhancing job market skills for Arab youths.

At the national level, on 3 February Libya launched an infrastructure development initiative including building educational institutions to create youth jobs and help diversify the petrol-based national economy. On 5 February it announced the setting up of 60 new industrial zones by 2020, with more than 4,000 projects expected to create 250,000 jobs.

Algeria will launch a vocational training initiative on 27 February, offering 2,500 teaching posts to unemployed youngsters who obtained degrees over the last three years.

Tackling the graduate joblessness problem

To tackle graduate unemployment, higher education systems need to be reexamined with a special focus on improving quality, not just quantity. Higher education also needs to be directed towards promoting development and employment.

Job training programmes are urgently needed, and career guidance and vocational opportunities must be incorporated into broader education policies. Linked to this is a need for concerted national industrialisation strategies that boost jobs for graduates. Tax incentives for foreign firms that establish operations in Africa and the Middle East must be provided.

At the same time, universities must produce the kind of skills firms need. Curriculum reform is needed to create an adaptable generation of professionals. Universities and colleges must critically review subject-matter content, and judiciously re-plan courses to fit employment opportunities and to equip graduates to address challenges to sustainable development.

This will also increase Africa and the Middle East's industrial technology acquisition, which could support the current drive to promote investment in research and development and higher education through university-industry-government partnerships.

Entrepreneurship - setting up new businesses - can stimulate innovation and invigorate local markets. But the challenge in African and Arab countries is often finding forms of entrepreneurship that meet the needs of the region, and how to introduce 'entrepreneurship' into the higher education system. There is a need to develop entrepreneurship education as a tool to support graduate self-employment

One idea is to create a Virtual African Observatory for Higher Education that could focus, among other things, on developing higher education for employment by establishing guides, a directory and e-library to facilitate knowledge and best-practice transfer from world-class universities to higher education policy makers in Africa and the Arab world. The observatory could include the following:

* A guide for employer-driven training. This would include organisations that provide graduates with top-class professional and technical training leading to career-building jobs, and enabling educational institutions to better prepare graduates for the workforce by providing them with quality curriculum and methodologies. An example is the Education for Employment Foundation.

* A directory of policies for education-orientated jobs. This would provide information about organisations that conduct rigorous and timely research to support education policy-making targeted at improving educational outcomes and the economic competitiveness of university graduates in an increasingly globalised world. It would also promote exchanges of policy ideas. Examples are the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

* An e-library for international studies dealing with university graduate unemployment.

A virtual observatory could also help in promoting university-industry alliances for employment creation. These would combine research with technological and social innovation to develop models that empower unemployed university graduates, and to convert concepts into small projects that help to ease unemployment problems.

It would also assist small and medium enterprises in technology acquisition, adoption and adaption to foster and promote a close productivity linkage between industry and research and development institutions, including universities.

* Dr Wagdy Sawahel, a molecular biotechnologist, is a visiting professor at Ghent University in Belgium and an associate research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt.