Universities and the quest for employable graduates

While an emphasis on expansion has seen the higher education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa grow from 2.3 million in 1999 to 6.6 million in 2013, quality of offerings has received less emphasis, with more recent concerns about quality translating into dissatisfaction with the calibre of graduates hitting the labour market.

A three-year study by the British Council aimed to address this concern. Its report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development: Repositioning higher education in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, examines how universities in the four Sub-Saharan African countries – and the United Kingdom for comparative purposes – can contribute more effectively to the preparation of graduates for work and society.

In the context of increasing global importance being attached to the issue of graduate employability, it also examines how a cross-country comparative perspective influences understandings and explanations of graduate employability and the implications for policy and practice.

Inadequate preparation

The report notes that while the situation of graduates is uneven across the region, a recent study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa estimated that over half of all graduates in the sub-region are inadequately prepared for employment.

“In many contexts, graduates struggle to find work. For example, in 2015 the Kenyan judiciary had to sift through as many as 80,000 applications for the 1,000 posts it had advertised, while 3,000 candidates applied for 28 posts in the Ports Authority. In many cases, degree holders are forced to apply for posts that require lower qualifications, and sometimes hide their higher qualifications for fear of being disqualified,” the report notes.

In some extreme cases, seeking work has even resulted in death: “The desperate search for graduate jobs ended in tragedy in Nigeria in 2014 as candidates for the Immigration Service thronging outside recruitment centres across the country stampeded, leading to the deaths of 16 people.”

According to the report, the regional brain drain has been worsened “by both the lack of availability of quality higher education and the lack of employment opportunities, leading to a substantial loss of talent and expertise”.

Employers from most sectors surveyed expressed concern that graduates seemed to know a lot of theory but frequently did not know how to apply it practically, said the report.

Needed: well-rounded graduates

While there are some gaps between the skills and attributes employers want and those that graduates bring, the gap may not be as large as is often claimed. The development of a well-rounded graduate arose as the most important concept needing further attention.

What is employability? According to the study, employability and employment of graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa hinges on three major issues: contextual factors, demand for graduates and graduate supply factors. Within the context, demand and supply interact and affect employability positively or negatively.

As per the report, employability refers to the ability of an individual to gain and maintain employment. It involves a range of attributes, involving knowledge and skills, but also values and social networks.

The research study was led by the UCL Institute of Education, London, and was conducted in partnership with four universities, one in each of the focus countries: University of Education, Winneba, Ghana; Kenyatta University, Kenya; University of Ibadan, Nigeria; and University of the Free State, South Africa.

South Africa and race

In South Africa, while university type, geography, field of study and student background all shape opportunities for graduates, race still plays a significant role in employment outcomes, with slightly more white and Indian graduates being employed (96%) than coloureds (91%) and many more than Africans (77%) in 2012.

The study found that white graduates seeking employment were absorbed into the workforce within a year of beginning searching, with 92% finding employment within six months. In contrast, only 56% of African graduates found employment within six months. Unemployment rates for black and white graduates respectively were 8.6% versus 3.0%, showing that black graduates were three times more likely to remain unemployed than their white counterparts.

The racial differentiation of employment outcomes for graduates from single institutions is also striking. For example, black graduates from the University of the Witwatersrand experienced an unemployment rate of 29% compared to white graduates with an unemployment rate of 7% – more than four times lower.

While white graduates have increasingly obtained employment in the private sector, black graduates have increasingly obtained posts in the public sector, as post-1994 employment opportunities have opened up in government.

Within both racial groups, in the decade after the end of apartheid, there was a shift towards self-employment, although this was greater for white graduates (3.6% to 12%), than for black graduates (0.35% to 2.4%). There was a decrease in the number of Indians in both the public and private sectors, matched by an increase (1.8% to 12.1%) in the proportion in self-employment.

Also, graduates from historically disadvantaged/black institutions take a much longer time to be absorbed into the labour market than those from historically advantaged/white institutions, who are absorbed within the first few months following graduation.

In respect of South Africa, the report recommends that public policy supports change in the direction of more equality between population groups and institutions. There is also a need for employers to provide more opportunities for practical and work experience activities and internships, especially for students in universities in rural areas, and for employers to widen their university recruitment pool, according to the report.


According to the study, graduates from public universities in Kenya are preferred for employment to those from private universities. A quarter of those surveyed prefer to recruit from the University of Nairobi (owing to its age and ranking), followed by Kenyatta University (19%) and Moi University (10.3%), all of which are public universities.

Only 53% of employers considered educational attainment, 49% considered the student’s involvement in extra-curricular activities and only 6% considered employing a new graduate on the basis of a foreign language competence.

The report noted that although the core civil service in Kenya continues to be a key employer of graduates in Kenya, the privatisation of public enterprises and the reduced size of the central civil service had led to a decline in numbers obtaining employment in these organisations.

Across the whole sample, but particularly in core civil service organisations and NGOs, there were considerably more graduates hired with a social science and business education background.

The report revealed that 19% of employers were dissatisfied with the level of confidence and voice and ethical awareness skills of the graduates respectively; 12% were dissatisfied with language command and communication, while 10.3% were dissatisfied with the level of critical thinking skills, collaboration and attitude of the graduates respectively.


The report noted that large numbers of Nigerian university graduates were unable to meet the employment requirements of the labour market; furthermore, that curricula in many universities were inadequate to deliver employable graduates.

A significant finding was that 24% of the graduates surveyed wanted to be self-employed, a greater proportion than those wanting to work in the public sector (20%) or the private sector (12%). Furthermore, 18% would prefer to stay in academia, and 28% intended to further their education.

Whereas many students surveyed bemoaned the lack of vocational guidance and career counselling, few jobs after graduation and high corruption levels, which they believed deprived them of opportunities, employers were of the view that graduates were not always well prepared for work.

“Employers believed that academic standards have fallen considerably over recent decades and that a university degree is no longer a guarantee of communication skills or technical competence. As a result, university graduates are commonly viewed as ‘half-baked’,” the report states.

“The employers require work-ready graduates who can take decisions, act according to instructions, find opportunities, take initiative and produce results. However, these skills are not taught in the universities; and even many students with first-class results may not have these soft skills.”

Among those graduates employed, 43% were from the social sciences, humanities and arts disciplines, followed by graduates from business studies (26%) and natural sciences (22%). Generally, graduates from the natural science disciplines were perceived as being of high calibre and having skills required by employers.

The report recommended that periodic curriculum reviews be carried out to ensure that curricula reflect labour market characteristics and trends and stronger university-employer linkages.


In Ghana, attitude to work was ranked as the most valuable quality by employers at 94%, while a second language (11.4%) was considered the least important. The second most highly valued skill was ethics and integrity (82%), while problem solving (71.4%) and critical thinking (71.1%) were rated third and fourth respectively.

The report identified a perceived lack of scientific and technical skills among graduates with more students drifting towards the humanities, including purchasing and supply, human resource management, accounting, and hospitality and tourism.

The report recommended the linking of higher education and training to the world of work within the national education and employment policy framework.

Three spheres of action

While the report notes that universities cannot solve the graduate employability challenge alone, it makes some recommendations, chief among which is the need for a “holistic vision” of the university experience. Thus, the report suggests that universities need to be active in three spheres: classroom, campus and community.

In the classroom, this involves providing the disciplinary and technical knowledge students will need as well as a range of transferrable skills, including those of analysis and critical thinking. At campus level, it involves offering extra-curricular activities which have a positive impact on student development; and at community level, it involves greater opportunities for work placements and internships.

“A holistic vision of learning across the 3 Cs – classroom, campus and community – is therefore needed to develop the kind of ‘all-rounder’ graduate that employers seek, and who will succeed in a rapidly changing labour market, carving out new opportunities and generating positive benefits for society,” the report states.