Tuning in to graduate employability

Among African universities, many of which are rooted in struggling national economies, the issue of graduate employability and entrepreneurship has taken centre stage over the past few years. An Africa-led European Union programme known as ‘Tuning’ is helping to improve graduate employability by facilitating the redesign of university programmes with an eye on student learning outcomes.

According to Deirdre Lennan of the European Commission's Directorate General for Education and Culture, who addressed the 14th General Association of African Universities conference held in Ghana earlier this month, where the subject of curriculum reform for graduate employability and entrepreneurship featured as an important sub-theme, there are several steps universities can take to help their students either find work or prepare them for self-employment.

“At the very least, universities should be providing their graduates with sufficient transferable skills that can be adapted to a number of different contexts,” she told University World News.

The European Union’s Tuning Africa project, now nearing the end of its second phase, is geared to help achieve this by facilitating a collaboration between universities' focuses around certain disciplines, aimed at designing or redesigning a degree programme in terms of student learning outcomes.

“If we take a discipline such as engineering, academics are encouraged to list the attributes and skills they would want their students to have in their work as an engineer and then focus on how to make sure those skills and competencies are attained,” she said.


The Tuning project has its origins in Europe where it formed part of the broader Bologna process started in 1999, which aimed to ensure comparability of standards and quality between university qualifications. Later, the Erasmus programme was introduced to enhance student mobility across the union.

Twenty years later, Africa, which has its own set of as-yet-unimplemented pan-African conventions on harmonisation, is going through a similar process – with the added benefit of being able to tap into lessons learned from Europe.

Lennan said the Tuning project offers a 'bottom-up' approach to implementing the 2014 Revised Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees and Other Academic Qualifications in Higher Education in African States (also known as the Addis Ababa Convention).

“The fact that African countries still need to ratify the Addis Convention does not preclude institutions from conducting their own reforms in the interim,” she said. “Those institutions are leading from the bottom up, as it were.”

The success of the Tuning project is evident in part in the growing number of institutions involved in its successive phases. When the pilot was started (2011-13) under the framework of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, there were 60 universities involved from 35 countries representing five sub-regions and all linguistic categories. In the second phase, that number increased to 107 universities in 42 countries, including Africa’s newest country, South Sudan. The project will enter its third five-year phase next year.


In the first phase separate groups focused on identifying generic and subject-specific competences in five subject areas – medicine, teacher education, agricultural sciences, mechanical engineering and civil engineering – at both undergraduate and masters levels. Employers and students were then involved in the screening of the competences in a process aimed at “increasing the relevance of higher education delivery through a consultative process”, according to Lennan.

The second phase, which is still running, added three new subject areas – economics, applied geology and higher education management, and focused on the actual revision of the degree programmes.

Lennan said that despite the project being an EU initiative, Tuning Africa is entirely Africa-led and ownership of the project among local coordinators and participants is strong.

“Tuners who have been involved in the European process say they have learnt much more from the Africans because of the dynamic nature of the process and the way in which participants have taken on the programme and adapted it to suit their needs,” she said. “For example, the student voice has been particularly strong.”

What has also been fascinating has been the way in which cultural differences have manifested in the different emphases given to competences by higher education stakeholders in Africa.

“We’ve done Tuning in a number of countries around the world. In Russia, for example, participants emphasised ‘knowledge’ as a priority in the learning process, while African participants have emphasised the concept of Ubuntu.”

Part of the strength of the system is that it allows for this kind of cultural variation, said Lennan.

Capacity development

The programme also has a strong human capacity development element. According to Lennan, the project started with a core group of 10 African tuners. Currently, there are approximately 150 African academics who have undergone the training and are now starting to facilitate joint reviews of degree programmes.

Another indicator of the strength of Tuning is in the willingness of African academics – already challenged by overcrowded lecture theatres and pressure to publish – to involve themselves in the project with no extra financial reward.

“All the academics involved in Tuning do it on top of their day jobs. There is a lot of work involved to review your own programme, but they are doing it voluntarily, despite their other pressures,” she said.

Professor Hortense Atta Diallo, now vice-president in charge of planning, programming and external relations at the Nangui Abrogoua University in Cote d’Ivoire, although a plant pathologist and virologist by training, was among the first batch of agricultural academics who was involved in the Tuning pilot when it started in 2011.

She said the pilot survey process involving feedback from lecturers and students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, revealed that expectations of students on the part of lecturers were unrealistically high and that communication between lecturer and student was poor.

The fact that there were no recorded learning outcomes or clear understanding of industry needs meant that both staff and students were working in a vacuum, she said.

‘What can you actually do?’

“When you tell your prospective employer you have a BSc in Biology, what does that actually tell that employer about what you can do?” asked Diallo.

She said at the end of the process, not only was teaching improved, but students were empowered by having a better understanding of what skills they possessed and could offer their future employers. For staff, there was a greater alignment of methodology and outcomes and overall clarity of mission.

Now in its second phase, the project is spreading to other faculties beyond agriculture.

“It was a lot of work, but more academics are joining and being trained,” said Diallo.

Lennan said she wants – and expects – to see even more people trained and more universities involved during the third phase. Her comments come in the wake of the EU’s 4 May “Joint Communication for a renewed impetus of the Africa-EU Partnership” in which the EU commits itself to an “enhanced ‘Tuning project’” as part of its broader commitment to advancing knowledge and skills on the continent.

But if employability is one of the aims of Tuning, can we say how effective has it been?

According to Lennan it is too soon to say, but an EU-funded project called CALOHEE is underway to assess its effectiveness in Europe and to develop the infrastructure to test bachelor and masters students’ performance across a range of fields “in a way that satisfies the needs of the various stakeholders in the European higher education community”.

“In Africa we will get around to doing that too,” said Lennan.

For the short and medium term, however, the emphasis is on helping more universities to think slightly differently about the kinds of students they are seeking to produce.

Business-university partnerships

In the longer term, Lennan says she would like to see a more dynamic relationship between academia and businesses and the creation of local ‘ecosystems’. Universities also need to be providing more guidance around work-related options to their students, she suggested.

“Universities need to integrate practice and placement and more interaction with the community in social science areas and in the economic sector,” she said. “I’d like to make it fairly automatic for universities to be interacting with the world outside of university.”

“Universities can create their own economy or eco-systems by forging more dynamic relationships with industry and business,” she said.

Lennan said the EU-driven 'Knowledge Alliances' – transnational and results-driven activities between universities and business – are having an impact, particularly in areas where the local economy is struggling.

“Both sectors are working to boost jobs and growth at the local level. Sometimes these alliances involve small or technical universities but the emphasis is on collaboration, sharing results of research, with a view to fostering innovation and creating jobs at the local level.”

Even in Europe, universities are difficult institutions to change, said Lennan, but there is a shift towards meeting more localised needs, as evidenced by the growth of the U-Multirank system which ranks universities on a wider range of indices and better illustrates their potential to contribute to social and economic development and jobs.

“Africa needs new universities because there is such high demand for higher education, but in my view these institutions should focus more strongly on identifying their unique mission according to their strengths. Those universities can then focus on finding innovative solutions to local challenges and leave the rankings to research institutions. This is where their limited resources should go.”