Graduate employability – Whose responsibility?

The Ethiopian government, through its ministry of education, is planning to improve the employment of university graduates over the next three years with specific targets to be met by individual institutions.

University education in Ethiopia has a long history of creating easy access to life-time jobs. However, this is no longer possible due to the significant expansion of the higher education sector which now produces more than 100,000 graduates every year.

This challenge of employability has now become a political lightning rod, with the government attracting criticism for driving higher education growth regardless of local needs and labour market demands.

One mechanism of responding to such challenges has been the creation of a national Employment Policy (2009) prepared as a mechanism for coordinating employment creation and labour administration across all sectors and sections of society. However, the effects of this policy are as yet unclear.

Other strategies included encouraging graduates to create their own jobs, and increasing the ratio (70:30) of programmes in science and technology offered at public universities versus the number of programmes in social sciences and humanities.

Rapid rise in student numbers

However, due to the sheer numbers of graduates today, these strategies are by no means adequate. Rapid population growth and a youthful population, coupled with limited growth in jobs, mean that unemployment and underemployment are serious social problems in Ethiopia. Studies also indicate that employment creation in the country continues to be affected by a variety of unaddressed challenges related to private investment, labour laws and economic development.

The new plan for universities sets out to create degree-relevant employment for 80% or above of each year’s graduates within one year. This ambitious target was drawn from the institution-specific plans of 33 public universities and assumes employment creation for a minimum of 160,000 graduates each year.

While the policy and operational directions set are a reflection of country-wide efforts towards the improvement of employment in general, the intention is perhaps the first organised move to have come from a government that has directed its attention over two decades primarily to the expansion of a system that was, prior to 1990, marked by a strong elitist legacy.

Core issues

The new plan identifies the core issues that influence low graduate employability as: questionable teacher quality, poor quality graduates, and weak linkages with industry.

Teacher quality is regarded as the most critical factor impacting graduate preparation. It is believed to suffer from a lack of technical knowledge and pedagogical skills which calls for additional focus.

Thus the quality of graduates is mainly attributed to poor teacher competency as well as ineffective student learning. Ineffective student learning is explained through students’ lack of practical and soft skills that are critical for employability. The contents of the curricula, assessment schemes and students’ poor language and communication skills have also been identified as areas for improvement. Curricula are to be reviewed to assess whether they assist graduate employability. More emphasis will be given to practical experience as part of the training modalities adopted by universities.

The mismatch between the supply of graduates and labour market demands and the limited cooperation that exists between industries and universities are also seen as major challenges. Universities are therefore expected to design strategies that strengthen these links.

Existing capacities

The delivery plans set for universities assume that strategies need to be implemented with existing capacities, resources and with a focus on those tasks that can have the most impact over the next three years. Such tasks include improvements in student learning in the classroom, in the areas of teacher competencies, performance and motivation, linkage with industry and support to students through value-added internship experiences.

For its part, the ministry is expected to develop an external assessment guideline to validate teacher assessment at each university, coordinate and administer exit examinations across prioritised fields of studies, revitalise pedagogical and language improvement training in each university, and oversee implementation of tracer studies and labour market demand forecasts that influence university policies and programme offerings.

Matching aspiration with challenges

While the concern and involvement of Ethiopian universities in the challenge that is represented by graduate employability are commendable, a lot remains in terms of realising the goals of the delivery plans in the limited time available and taking into account resource constraints.

The fact that the new plan focuses only on the next few years is an indication that it is being used as a tool to achieve government’s short-term goals contained in the Education Sector Development Programme V. Ideally, in addition to what it seeks to achieve in the short term, the new plan should look at how current initiatives will serve as stepping stones to more comprehensive and nationally coordinated efforts that address the concerns about graduate employability.

It is also difficult to imagine how the success of the plan in the short term can be achieved without the influence of what are dismissed as external factors, which include infrastructure and inputs, leadership and administration, poor quality of university intake, and impact of the labour market.

Unabated expansion

For instance, while the improvement of teacher knowledge and skills is seen as a priority area, there is little detail on how teachers will be able to implement modern methods of teaching and assessment in large classes created by the unabated expansion drive that afflicts every university. The new university-industry linkage plans also rely on the capacity of the private sector to accommodate thousands of students graduating every year. Achieving employability at this level seems quite inconceivable.

While it may be welcome as a new step in the right direction, the difficulties of apportioning the major responsibilities of the new plan to individual universities is also another critical area which requires attention.

I would argue that the initiative calls for the participation and coordinated efforts of all parties – both at federal and regional levels – that have a stake in the preparation and eventual employment of Ethiopian university graduates. It remains to be seen to what extent other stakeholders will be involved and whether they will respond favourably to the call.