Employer poll reveals preferred university graduates

Graduates of the public University of Nairobi and the private Strathmore University are by far the most preferred by employers in Kenya, according to a poll by the Nairobi recruitment firm Corporate Staffing Services. The findings reveal long-held biases among employers and are likely to spark rivalry among universities, as the battle for the best students hots up.

Educationists said the hiring preferences of employers could shape admission trends in the coming years, as new students rush to be admitted to universities perceived by companies to be the best.

Among employers who had a preference when hiring, 84% said graduates from the University of Nairobi had an advantage when seeking entry-level jobs. It was followed by Jomo Kenyatta (63.9%), Kenyatta (57%), Moi (45.6%), Egerton (19.6%), Maseno (6.3%) and Masinde Muliro (3.8%).

Strathmore topped the private university category, with 78% of respondents indicating preference for its graduates, followed by Daystar (57%) and Catholic University (49%). Others include United States International University (45%), Kenya Methodist (17%), Mount Kenya (13%), the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton (7%) and Africa Nazarene University (5%).

Employers are increasingly taking into consideration the credibility of universities, measured among other parameters by years in existence and the level of specialisation in various fields.

While a university degree can open doors for graduates, it must be underpinned by a rich learning experience to really translate into an employment opportunity, said the survey by Corporate Staffing Services.

Some findings and implications

The findings suggest that would-be students might need to relook at university choices, focusing on gaining specialised work experience and as much job knowledge as possible to gain an edge in a highly competitive job market.

“Universities must work towards enhancing the credibility of their certifications. This is possible through offering quality coursework, having proper infrastructure, qualified lecturers and market-driven courses, so as to produce quality graduates and gain employers’ trust,” said the survey released this month.

The Corporate Staffing Services' poll said the main reasons why respondents prefer graduates from selected universities is technical expertise and knowledge of industry displayed by their staff and students (24%).

Among employers, 19% consider the quality of learning and credibility of the university while 11% look at standing, reputation and the relevance of courses offered to the employer’s business. Only 6% of recruiters look at the preparedness of students for the job market.

In the private higher education sector, the main reason why employers preferred certain graduates was the reputation of the university – a key consideration for 25% of those polled – along with the institution’s specialisation, years of existence and societal involvement. For example, Strathmore had a recognised focus on business incubation and mentorship.

At least 22% of recruiters believed private institutions gave credible certificates. Relevant skills worried only 15% of those polled, development of graduates holistically as well as academically excited only 14%, and 9% looked at technical expertise and knowledge of the industry, and exposure to the job market through industrial attachment.

Of the 205 employers surveyed, 15% of respondents said they had no preference for a particular university when recruiting graduates. Others mentioned that preference is guided by job specialisation, for example a medical degree from the University of Nairobi.

“Let us face it, in such a competitive job environment, it really matters which university you went to,” said Dr Dan Ngugi, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. “With the trends we are seeing, enrolment decisions will be based on these perceptions of preferences by employers.

“What a graduate needs is a first job. Their choices will now be more informed.”

A human resource challenge

Employers said that with a surge in qualified students over the past few years, making a choice between two equally qualified candidates is emerging as a challenge for human resources professionals.

“So when employers are faced by a situation where there are two equally qualified candidates for the same position, some hard decisions have to be made,” said Perminus Wainaina, chief executive officer of Corporate Staffing Services.

“When asked what key top attributes they look for when forced to choose between two equally qualified candidates, 61.6% of employers said they would look at the area of specialisation of the candidates,” said Wainaina.

Nearly 41% of polled employers said they would make such a call based on the candidate’s leadership experience, as such candidates are able to manage themselves and teams, take responsibility and be accountable.

While 35% look at remuneration expectations, 32% focus on a candidate’s industry experience, 26% of employers consider a candidate’s availability and 8.5% consider educational attainment when making a hiring decision between two candidates.

Disagreement over graduate quality

While employers decry the quality of university graduates, Kenya’s higher education regulator says the country produces graduates who are competitive in the global market.

“Our work on equating Kenyan qualifications with degrees from other parts of the world put Kenyan-educated graduates on a par. Evidences of excellent performance in postgraduate studies outside Kenya also indicate that our education is comparable internationally,” Professor David Some, secretary of the Commission for University Education, told University World News in an earlier interview.

With the rising number of universities in Kenya and perceptions of low quality graduates, whatever the commission findings, it is no wonder that employers have preferences regarding universities.

The Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, found in a study last year that only 49% of graduates from Kenyan universities were believed to be fit for jobs. But Kenya was still way better than her East African neighbours.

Government data shows that youth unemployment hovers around 60% and remains one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth, with the potential to trigger social upheaval.

Higher education challenges

According to policy-makers in the Treasury and Ministry of Education, some of the most pressing challenges that confront university education in Kenya include inequalities, inadequate capacity to cater for growing student demand, and a mismatch between skills acquired by graduates and the demands of industry.

“At university level there is a shortage of staff qualified with PhDs, which is likely to compromise the quality of education at this level. The limited availability of financing has rendered universities unable to recruit additional qualified staff,” said the Treasury in a document detailing the resource requirements of the education sector for 2015.

“Universities therefore train graduates who are not relevant to the labour market. This mismatch between demand and supply of labour has led to unemployment and low productivity,” said the Treasury.

The demand for university education in Kenya has grown rapidly. Student numbers have more than doubled in the past four years to a current 350,000, with the biggest strain being put on Kenya’s 31 state-funded higher education institutions.

The rise in enrolments has been buoyed by an increase in public and private universities, which grew from 58 in 2011 to 68 now – comprising 22 public chartered universities including three technical universities, nine public university constituent colleges, 17 private chartered universities, 12 universities operating with letters of interim authority, five private university constituent colleges and two registered private universities.

The number of students has increased faster than revenue streams to institutions as well as the size of the teaching force, hurting the quality of degrees, educationists have said.