Universities tackle graduate employability challenge

Spurred on by an increase in the number of unemployed graduates resulting from the growing mismatch between university education and market needs, North Africa's universities are working on several approaches to produce industry- and market-ready graduates.

In the Arab world’s 22 states, which includes eight countries in Africa, the average youth unemployment rate is 30%. This is the highest of any region, according to an August 2016 Economist report entitled "Look Forward in Anger".

Some African countries, like Egypt, sit above the average. In 2014, 34% of university graduates were unemployed.

Employability rankings

Only two universities in the region were included in the first QS Graduate Employability Rankings 2017, namely, Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, both at 201+.

In addition, no North African university was included in the 150 best universities for delivering work-ready graduates as indicated by the Global University Employability Ranking 2016.

Lack of jobs has in some cases become a source of social instability, prompting many demonstrations by university graduates in some North African countries, particularly Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

The most recent demonstration took place in Egypt on 27 November when postgraduate degree holders protested in front of the headquarters of the cabinet in Cairo, demanding that they be appointed to jobs in the state administration.

Initiatives to improve graduate employability have varied across the region, largely in accordance with universities’ individual capabilities and circumstances.

Links with private sector

In Tunisia, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Chiheb Bouden was quoted as saying in a report by the Oxford Business Group entitled The Report: Tunisia 2016 that a solution to employment “can only come from a joint effort by both universities and the private sector”.

The current educational system in Tunisia requires all students from universities to undergo an internship. Students also have the opportunity to do a long internship, or a contractual assignment in their final year.

"These types of initiatives are good, but not enough to adapt the educational curriculum to meet the real socio-economic needs of the job market," said Bouden.

Those internships should be overseen by a university supervisor, who in turn should be aware of the assignment and the project’s goal. Also, a framework that allows companies to easily interact with the education system should be formulated as the current framework is not particularly interesting or appealing for them, Bouden said.

Career centres

In Morocco, university-based career centres have been opened which provide orientation services to students and graduates as well as work readiness training, information on high growth sectors and exposure to employers, internships and other forms of workplace learning.

In neighbouring Mauritania, more than 80% of university graduates have degrees in the humanities, creating a gap between their qualifications and the needs of an economy centred on mining, fisheries and construction, which has led to graduate unemployment problems.

Thus, Mauritania's government is planning to set up a school of mining and new fast-track technical specialties in higher education to re-direct students from literature to science and skilled trades, with the goal of having 30% of students enrolled in these subjects by 2020 – up from less than 10% in 2011.

A new kind of learner

According to experts, the demand for professional programmes emerges from a young cohort of students who are keenly aware of job market needs and the pursuit of competitiveness.

"Arab learners… are increasingly seeking educational experiences that are directly relevant to their professional interests and objectives, especially, as they relate to career success and employability," higher education expert Eman Ahmed Ghanim Abu Khousa told University World News.

Thus, Arab higher education institutions are required to focus less on the basic disciplines and offer more on professional programmes, said Abu Khousa.

Specialist in technology-enhanced learning Mohammad Khalil from Graz University of Technology in Austria told University World News that in order to produce industry- and market-ready graduates, universities needed to pursue “out of the box” solutions through the implementation of smart education. According to Khalil, e-learning systems at Arab universities were old and this minimised e-learning's vital role in enhancing graduates’ skills and capabilities.

’Modern’ approaches

Thus, Arab universities should adopt more modern educational approaches within their instructional system, he said.

However, it was also important to use technology effectively, as highlighted by Abu Khousa: "There is a deep disconnect between adopting new technologies and truly leveraging data to enhance quality, especially in terms of teaching and learning."

"Arab universities should start sowing seeds toward the adoption of learning analytics to deal with the challenges and problems confronting them," Mohamed Koutheair Khribi, programme specialist for educational technologies at the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization based in Tunis, told University World News.

Besides ensuring a better understanding of student profiles and needs, Arab universities should use learning analytics to improve teaching, assessment practices and educational content, Khribi said.

According to Khribi, one of the main challenges in Arab universities that could be addressed through learning analytics is the non-availability of suitable high-quality educational content that is aligned with student needs and preferences as well as employment market needs.

The view is endorsed by Abu Khousa, who said: "Arab higher education institutions must promote analytic learning applications to provide a platform to build up learners’ career-readiness and evaluate their professional development during the course of their academic study with the aim of developing professional orientation, and career path development aligned to industry needs."