Failed university-industry links escalate joblessness

With many graduates across Africa unable to secure jobs, links between university education and industry are under intense scrutiny. The failure of companies to employ graduates is blamed largely on irrelevant course content that does not match industry needs.

At the eighth national higher education conference and exhibition held in Kampala from 18-21 March, participants drawn largely from higher education institutions and industry explored ways to build partnerships.

Both are being blamed for growing graduate unemployment – higher education for its failure to translate theory into practice and curriculum irrelevance, and commerce and industry for lack of human resource planning.

Some challenges

Professor John Opuda-Asibo, executive director of the National Council for Higher Education, or NCHE, said Africa urgently needed policies that would focus on matching universities and industry.

He emphasised that higher education is responsible for producing human capital – but in collaboration with several stakeholders, such as industry.

Professor George Mondo Kagonyera, chancellor of the flagship Makerere University, called for a paradigm shift for university education from theoretical to both theoretical and practical.

“Is the higher education system we have in Uganda too theoretical?” he asked. “If universities are to undergo a change it should be for them to get knowledge to answer the needs of society.”

Although there was doubt expressed about the quality of graduates from some higher education institutions, Kagonyera pointed out that Uganda’s graduates are in many areas as competitive as any others, citing South Africa as an example. “If you look at the facilitation we get compared to universities in South Africa, we are somewhere.”

Even if conference participants were concerned that universities were producing a generation of graduates whose qualifications do not meet job market needs, it was noted that only 10% of Uganda’s youth are in universities. Participants were cautioned though, that educated youths without jobs were ‘dangerous’.

Vincent Ssembatya, director of quality assurance at Makerere University, said one of the most prominent constraints on Uganda’s education sector was low funding from government.

The education sector is only allocated 11% of the Ugandan budget, which falls short by a wide 9% margin of the world benchmark of 20%. The current world average is 15%.

The need for planning

Professor Wilson Muyinda Mande, deputy vice-chancellor of Nkumba University, cautioned that universities were not getting it right if they assumed graduates would automatically fit the job market.

Rather, there should be a human resource plan that would help universities to concentrate on producing skills needed by industries, he said. The last human resource plan for Uganda was done in 1967.

Dr Frank Ssebowa, executive director of the Uganda Investment Authority, echoed the same concerns. “Can academia go back to training appropriate manpower, understand which people we need and at what level? Can we have a manpower survey?”

John Walugembe, executive director of Uganda Small Scale Industries, agreed that universities and business associations should work together to define what the job market wants. “Work with us to ensure that your graduates learn what we want.”

Sir Gordon Wavamunno, an entrepreneur, said there was no synergy between industries and universities. “They need us and we need them. The Ministry of education should help us to know who is doing what. Partnerships with the private sector should be top of the agenda.

“Business entrepreneurs will be interested in being associated with universities,” said Wavamunno, who owns 13 companies and employs more than 2,000 people. He said it was possible for entrepreneurs to fund ideas that go back to industry.

Treading on toes

There were concerns about industries and government agencies taking on university ‘duties’. For instance, instead of institutions like the Uganda Revenue Authority asking universities for the type of graduates they want, they have a unit that trains tax officers.

“Let industries tell universities what they want and they shall teach the students,” said Nkumba University’s Muyinda Mande.

“Industries should not have training units, there should be a synergy. There should be mentorship to bridge theory to practice. If people come with innovations and there is no industry to support them, you can't move on,” said Mande.

However, Emmanuel Katumba from St Augustine International University said not getting a job did not mean failure but accumulated knowledge and a positively changed society. He wondered if jobless graduates could be ‘recycled’ for other use.

John Opuda-Asibo of the NCHE proposed student mentoring by “successful individuals in the business world who are honest and genuine” and could draw on their lifelong lessons and experiences to impart guidance and workplace experience to students and graduates.