Initiative to help graduates’ transition to workforce

Reeta Roy is president of the Toronto-based MasterCard Foundation, which has assets of over US$9 billion and more than 35 partnerships with universities and other organisations, funding programmes in areas such as microfinance and youth learning. One is the Youth Economic Participation Initiative – YEPI – with the global Talloires Network of engaged universities, which supports initiatives that help graduates' transition to the workforce.

YOJANA SHARMA spoke to her ahead of the Talloires Network Leaders Conference held outside Cape Town this month.

UWN: How did the MasterCard Foundation become involved in higher education and employability issues?

Roy: We’re a young foundation, first and foremost, so we’re very open to learning and adapting as we go about doing things.

The foundation was created by MasterCard when it became a public company. It is a private, independent foundation. The largesse, the generosity, came with the gift at the time of MasterCard’s initial public offering but the governance of the foundation and its management are completely separate.

If you look at our board of directors you’ll see folks like Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana, Jendayi Frazer who used to be the assistant secretary of state for Africa in the United States government, a former chancellor of MIT, academics, business people – and none of them have anything to do with the MasterCard company. They don’t serve on the company’s board; they are not employees.

It was very unusual that a corporation would set up a foundation and let it be independent. It was a very generous move, partly because they wanted to set something up that would bear the name but would do good in the world.

On inception there were two areas of focus: microfinance, which we have since called financial inclusion; and the other focus around education, now youth learning. We changed the name deliberately to not just focus on the formal system of education but to also look at learning that occurs when young people are out of school and they don’t have work.

Youth learning is a massive arena where there is an opportunity to create change which could also be catalytic.

It was obvious after several conversations, and meetings, that the world of education seldom speaks to the world of employment. You read an awful lot about the mismatch between what young people are equipped for and what the marketplace needs them to be equipped for.

And this compounds issues around unemployment, disillusionment. When economies are trying to grow and employers are out there looking, but there is a plethora of people who just don’t fit with what the growth sectors need, it is frustrating.

We started to ask more questions and it was clear that some of it has to do with curricula and how learning is taking place, and how it is relevant to the marketplace. But the other part is, what are the pathways – because it is never linear – from school to work?

What are the opportunities for organisations looking for talent to connect to where the talent is being skilled and developed? How do those two worlds meet in a more productive way? Clearly universities are a very important actor but even more so when you look at the big picture. Universities are not only intellectual hubs, they are also contributors to growth.

UWN: What is it that universities are doing wrong? We hear time and again that there are too many graduates of a certain kind and not enough with other skills.

Roy: Economies and the nature of growth are shifting.

If you take a fairly agrarian economy like Rwanda or Tanzania where high numbers of people are employed in the agriculture sector or dependent not just on farming, but other lines of work related to agriculture, universities have tremendous opportunities not only to teach but to conduct research. Part of that research can also be focused on challenges for the country, in terms of growth or its progress on certain human development indicators.

Universities have a tremendous role to play in creating solutions and opportunities, through knowledge and technical skills. Universities are also living labs for coming up with solutions and testing ideas. Universities are a human enterprise inhabited with lots of young people looking to acquire the skills.

That gives us insight into how learning experiences are designed, not just the new knowledge that is created, which is terrific for a young person and a professor, and also for industry and the economy.

The most important technology transfer is within the university and that is knowledge. The most important product [of universities] is somebody who is going to be productive and contribute, not just in terms of technical skills, but also the ethos – what is needed to be a member of society – and leadership – not just positional power but also the value system that gets transmitted.

UWN: How did the Foundation become involved with the Talloires Network?

Roy: When we started to get to know Talloires we were very intrigued by its diverse membership.

Second, Talloires values the fact that universities are not ivory towers, and that they are not separate from the world that we all inhabit. They too are struggling with this transition of young people who come to them and who leave them to become part of the alumni.

Given the diversity of the Talloires Network, the brainpower and the leadership, when we began the conversation we said, what’s the number one issue facing institutions?

Clearly it was about employment, and not just employment of their graduates, but also the role of young people in stimulating positive social and economic change, and the institution's role with that community, and how to help young people transition into the productive [workforce]. They could be coming from universities or living around those universities.

UWN: Are there countries or regions you are particularly concerned about?

Roy: The foundation’s focus is Africa, and predominantly Sub-Saharan Africa. It is 90% of what we fund.

But with an opportunity like this, it makes sense to have a global call, given the makeup of the Talloires Network and particularly when looking at innovative ways of thinking and cross-fertilisation of ideas – they can come from anywhere. We said, let’s open the programme up to full Talloires membership and see where the most interesting ideas arise.

We have projects from across Africa, but we will also have projects from Latin America, Asia. The universities in this funding round are in Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Zimbabwe but also Malaysia, Mexico and Chile.

We selected the University of Minnesota as a learning partner on this project. They are going to be bringing a panel together at the Talloires meeting in South Africa. We get to hear a progress report, less ‘here we have the answers’, but more about how this process has been shaking up learning; what has it sparked.

I’ve seen this time and time again. It starts a conversation within an organisation or between organisations that actually transcends the very project itself. So we’ll see where that goes.

UWN: To what extent are different programmes applicable in different countries?

Roy: We have a very nuanced view and I am always cautious on duplication, replication, or whatever term is used. Without question, nothing survives unless it is really tailored to its context.

That said, one of the powerful things is learning from models or successful programmes or initiatives, whether put together by foundations or government organisations or someone else. They usually have interesting lessons that can be drawn, about methods, how communities can be brought together to solve the problem, how certain technologies can be deployed. This is the research and evaluation part.

The attributes may be different for a person living in the Philippines or in Indonesia or Rwanda, but there is a lot that can be learned and applied. This is not just about replicability, it’s about understanding approaches that are working and why.

For example, we have seen that peer mentoring, in multiple settings in different countries, is very powerful. Young people trust other young people in delivering certain kinds of information. That mentoring can be adapted to cultural norms in the country, to relationships between people of different generations, different cultures. That’s the part we seek to learn.

UWN: How did you decide on the initiatives to be funded with Talloires?

Roy: One of the best ways was to have a competition – there is no shortage of ideas.

We said, let’s try to understand what the various ways of cracking the nut are, and support a number of these kinds of initiatives. And then, most importantly, let’s learn together as a community. So one part of it has been designing a competitive process.

In an ideal world obviously we are looking for a range of ideas, not a magic bullet but a range of ideas and approaches that are effective in helping young people transition to something productive. Clearly there has to be a range because they have to be able to work in different contexts for different sets of young people in different institutions.

With the Youth Economic Participation Initiative – YEPI – projects there was an open call for proposals within and outside the Talloires Network. The focus was universities in developing countries.

Pilot projects had to focus on either third and fourth year students or graduates up to two years. The pilots had to be running for at least 12 months to demonstrate initial anecdotal evidence and institutional commitment.

There were 68 applications: 47 from Africa, 11 from Asia and 10 from Latin American and the Caribbean. The initial applications were assessed by Talloires Network staff and an external advisory panel, and eight YEPI universities were then selected.

UWN: What has been the outcome of the projects?

Roy: One of the key things we learned, particularly when we work with universities and certainly when we work with multiple partners, is the importance from the very beginning of trying to be as clear as you can – without being constrained – about the problem we are trying to solve.

One part is to review how other people see the problem, not just how you [see it] and that’s how you get a 360° view on these kinds of challenges. The other is working with organisations with a similar value set and that are similarly motivated.

With the Talloires Network and its members, everyone has a vested interest for their own universities, beyond the student services and alumni, in thinking of their role as a citizen in that community and the role of the institution in that community.

The other thing that I find intriguing is the question of failure.

One of the reasons to have a learning partner like the University of Minnesota is less about accountability and evaluating who got it right and who’s done it wrong, but the challenge that is to be solved and the different ways to get there.

Are we really pushing the envelope sufficiently? It’s one thing to have fantastic ideas and even to have the resources, but the ability to execute is like its own classroom of learning.

UWN: If other universities were to embark on a process similar to YEPI, what could they learn from it?

Roy: As the demonstration grants are still in their early phases, initial learning is anecdotal.

This project demonstrates the need for universities – especially those in developing countries – to improve the curriculum and make it more relevant to needs in the market and economy. It will encourage them to deepen their ties to the private sector and industry to improve employment outcomes for graduates.

Even though the universities are geographically diverse, they face similar challenges and constraints in aligning with market needs and ensuring strong labour outcomes for their graduates.

The idea of creating a community of practice is to ensure that the members of the community identify, document, share and apply the learning that emerges. We found that a competitive process for proposals is a useful way to test and assess multiple approaches, and identify new partners.

Utilising a network like Talloires can bring diverse actors together under a common agenda and shared principles. It can also be leveraged to share learning widely.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.