How to train young people for the labour market

Most higher education stakeholders agree that Africa’s large and growing youthful population generates a demographic dividend that needs to be tapped but how to do so within the current framework of university education remains a little less clear.

The connection between higher education and the labour market – a growing concern in African countries, including Kenya – was the focus of a forum held in Nairobi last month by Goethe-Institut, the German cultural centre, aimed at providing a platform for university students, education experts and the general public to discuss ways to bridge the widening gap in human resource requirements and priorities that universities set to train their students.

Anzetse Were, a Nairobi-based development economist, told the forum that mass enrolment in public universities was negatively affecting the quality of higher education.

Were, who is also a celebrated columnist with Kenya’s Business Daily, said the massification policy in tertiary institutions in conjunction with cost issues were among the biggest impediments to delivery of quality higher education in Kenya.

“There’s this new trend where universities are more interested in the numbers than the quality,” she said, adding that most university classes are usually overcrowded but the number of lecturers was not increasing and the quality of higher education was dropping.

According to a report by Kenyatta University, one of the country’s leading public universities, demand for higher education is rooted in the perceived benefits associated with higher education and the desire by governments to increase access to university education to learners of all categories.

This demand has led to universities opening ill-equipped branches and mounting courses they are not equipped to teach, it stated.

In addition, many institutions of higher learning in Africa still struggle with meagre resources, low salaries and remuneration for professors and other academic staff, lack of research funding and equipment, as well as limited autonomy. In most cases, they produce a low percentage of university graduates in key areas such as engineering, agriculture, health and science.

Referring to the mismatch between market demand for skilled graduates and those supplied, Christine Freitag, a German education expert working with universities in Kenya and Ghana, said: “There’s room for some improvement.

“The market economy says university graduates lack the professional skills needed for the workplace and the universities say we need to discuss that.”

In a bid to reverse the trend, Freitag has been involved in a unique partnership known as the ‘German-African University Partnership Platform for the Development of Entrepreneurs and Small/Medium Enterprises’, aimed at strengthening professional skills among African university graduates and helping to increase their employability and entrepreneurial skills.
This, said Freitag, ultimately promotes the development of start-ups and small and medium entrepreneurs, thereby providing employment opportunities in Africa.

Set up in 2015 with funding from the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the four-year project is being carried out by the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences in Germany where Freitag is a research fellow, in partnership with the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and the University of Nairobi.

“For me, it is very interesting to see that the understanding of the objectives of universities is quite different here in Kenya to that in Germany,” said Freitag.

“Our main objective is to train young people for the labour market,” said Freitag. “That’s what we do, and that’s what the university is all about.”

“In Germany, we have two types of universities: the classical universities and the universities of applied sciences, which are very practically oriented.”

According to Freitag, the major aim of the German-Africa cooperation is to build capacity for practice-oriented teaching and research in the field of entrepreneurship and SME development, while increasing awareness among investors in Germany about Africa’s potential as a market.

Corporate partners are involved, providing universities with knowledge and experience to help them to improve the academic practice-oriented teaching and research, and increase the employability of their graduates.

Caroline Maina, a first-year University of Nairobi student, told the forum she is concerned about a growing unemployment rate among young graduates.

“I can’t blame the universities per se because they help us think critically about how to find solutions in our societies,” she said.

But economist Were says there’s a need to question what is not being done correctly.

“Beyond people wanting to know stuff, people get educated for income generation and so that they can improve the quality of their lives,” said Were.

Another scholar, Bitange Ndemo, a senior lecturer at University of Nairobi’s Business School expressed dismay over the disconnect between the skills businesses need and what post-secondary and tertiary institutions are teaching.

“By all indications, we are moving towards a very disruptive future that we are only beginning to see,” he said.

Commenting in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper on the debate, Ndemo said: “The discourse comes at a critically disruptive period of rapid technological changes as the world gears itself towards the start of the fourth industrial revolution.”