Students’ views are key to tackling the jobs timebomb

Eleven million young people will be joining the jobs market every year for the next decade in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The population of the region will grow from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 2 billion in 2050 and 70% of those will be under 25.

“Africa is the last young continent,” Tony Reilly, the British Council’s country director in Kenya, told the British Council’s Going Global conference on 1 June.

But the growth of technology, connectivity and previously unimagined opportunities for young people for interaction, travel and occupations is precarious, as increasing numbers of new entrants onto the labour market have made competition for conventional salaries work intense and unemployment rates are high, according to a British Council report.

Increasingly it is recognised that higher education has a critical role to play in building cohesive sustainable societies.

Yet the university sector is in nothing short of a crisis. Systems have been allowed to expand without corresponding resources, leading to a catastrophic drop in quality and the churning out of increasing numbers of poorly equipped graduates on to that already congested jobs market.

This is the premise of research commissioned two years ago by the British Council to better understand the issue of graduate employability in Africa.

It looked for answers to this question in a place that had far too little attention – the views of students themselves – and some of those students comprised the panel members at a Going Global session discussing the findings.

The research was carried out in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Students in the driving seat

The report on the research – Students in the Driving Seat: Young people’s voices on higher education in Africa – concluded that “only by listening to students and empowering them to hold their institutions to account can we drive up quality across the systems”.

The report found that:
  • • Students no longer see their future in conventional salaried employment. Entrepreneurship and social enterprise have become key areas of interest for graduates, along with combined careers in various sectors. Universities need to adapt themselves to this new reality.
  • • Giving back to their communities is an important goal for students, who although ambitious in their own careers, are committed to the development of their societies and supporting their community of origin.
  • • Careers services and skills development programmes are underused and provision at universities is patchy.
  • • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds face greater difficulties developing employability skills, participating in internships and voluntary work and securing employment.
  • • Universities still focus too much on rote learning and too little on critical thinking and enquiry-based learning.
  • • Students are unwilling to speak out about the problems their universities face and lack benchmarks by which to evaluate the provision they are receiving.
The report pointed to a ten-fold expansion in enrolment in higher education in Ethiopia in the first decade of the millennium. There is even a thriving sector in war-torn Somalia where 34 new institutions opened between 2004 and 2012.

“Expanding enrolments to higher education have allowed new segments of the population to experience the richness of wider social and cultural interactions and opened new possibilities of work and enterprise,” the report says.

Nevertheless diplomas have not provided automatic white-collar employment as might have been the case in the past and in some contexts such as Nigeria, rates of employment are not significantly higher for graduates than for those with primary or secondary education, the report says.

This may explain why the research found that the employment landscape in Africa is changing: instead of salaried employment, graduates are looking to forge opportunities in self-employment.

A prime example is Kenya where a staggering 64.4% of students aspire to be self-employed. The figures for the other countries, however, paint a more mixed picture: in Nigeria the figure is 23.4%, but in Ghana it is 9.4% and in South Africa 4.1%, a figure comparable to the UK.

Preparing graduates for work

Tristan McCowan, reader in international development at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, said a key question in the research was how universities in the five countries are contributing to the preparation of graduates for work and participation in society.

They looked at three to four case studies in each country with different types of higher education institutions and used surveys, interviews with students and lecturers and focus groups as part of the research.

Students were asked three questions: what did they want to do when they left university, how prepared did they feel, and what had their university given them and where had they come up short?

Surprisingly, the research found that 78% of students surveyed either agreed or agreed strongly that the university was well regarded by employers and nine in ten thought university had enhanced their ability to find work.

This clashed with the widespread media reports of “half-baked” graduates and poor conditions in universities. It also contradicted the bleak picture of universities painted by lecturers interviewed for the project.

Students were less flattering about their own institutions, however, when asked about specific employability activities undertaken by students, such as whether they went on a development course, wrote or updated their CV, had work experience or an internship, spoke to a careers adviser or had contact with employers through their course.

Only one in three students across all countries had spoken to a careers adviser in their final year of study. Still fewer had had contact with an employer.

The percentage who had had work experience or an internship was higher but patchy – 62% in Ghana, 45% in Kenya, 37% in Nigeria and just 29% in South Africa.

The students on the panel had mixed experiences at their own universities when it came to preparedness for work and employability.

Mosa Mangaka Leteane, president of the student council, University of the Free State, South Africa, said the way careers services were operated was very important to why they were underused.

“There was an office around the corner, but no one bothered to visit. The way they present the options is not working out. At my university people come in and tell you only that it is important [to have a job] and how to draft a CV.”

Patricia Kerubo Onyinkwa, a law student at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, said at her school there was not even awareness that there was a careers office. “We want universities to create more awareness,” she said.


The panelists were more positive about the opportunities for entrepreneurship.

Ifeoluwa Adedeji, a recent graduate in political science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, said being an entrepreneur was “the new cool” in his country. “It’s like a defence mechanism when you know there are no jobs outside,” he said.

He himself has set up an online platform, Acada360, that gathers course content from students across universities and puts it online.

“If you want to see what people in other universities are doing, you can preview the work and if you want it you can download it using a virtual currency,” he explains. “It’s your online study buddy, and it has 5,000 users.”

He said in his country, to get a BA, entrepreneurship studies were compulsory. “The courses are there. They are compulsory and every university is mandated to set up an innovation and entrepreneurship centre,” he said.

Suzette Owusa-Asare, a recent graduate in earth science from the University of Ghana, said in her course entrepreneurship and communications was taught in the first semester, and she learned how to put ideas into a plan and how to work towards it, how to get people to believe in it and how to get help.

“We were also taught how to talk at interviews, what to say and not to say,” she says, “and how to make a business plan and approach people for investment”.

She is now working on a plan to export salt to Nigeria, because she discovered that it is important salt from Brazil. “I put a plan together and believe I can make a difference,” she said.

Leteane from South Africa’s University of the Free State said the students of the future are already here. “What we have to ask ourselves is: are we creating the professors of the future?”