Redesigning university curricula to boost employability

In a recent University World News article, our colleague Jon Harle introduced the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) partnership, which is part of the UK Aid-funded Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme. The partnership is developing new approaches for equipping students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they need to contribute fully to employment and wider society when they graduate.

Across seven partners, four of which are universities in Tanzania and Uganda, TESCEA is working with lecturers to redesign university courses to transform teaching and learning. The universities are also working with employers and other local stakeholders to strengthen links between universities and their wider communities.

Understanding the skills gaps

Some of the key questions that guided the TESCEA team at the start of the project include: What skills are employers looking for? How do we ensure that the key skills gaps are addressed through the redesigned curricula? What role should universities play in this process? How do the priorities differ between different countries, institutions and subject areas?

We reviewed the literature to understand the specific skills that are needed, in order to integrate them in the redesigned curricula at partner universities. This was a challenge as there is little formal published literature on the desired skills of university graduates and on the current gaps that employers identify. There is also a critical lack of formal published research on graduate employability in Africa, with most of the research originating from the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

To discover and make best use of the existing evidence, all the partners – from Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and the UK – worked on identifying sources for our literature search. This helped to ensure that literature was relevant to all the countries represented and helped ensure that around half of the sources identified were from Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to formal publications, we drew on documents from universities – for example, workshop materials – and employers – for example, brochures used in graduate recruitment.

The review showed that disconnects between higher education and employment are worldwide problems. However, some issues of skills gaps are also specific to East Africa, and to specific sectors and parts of East Africa. This is why it was important to have a large component of African literature in the review.

Collecting and analysing the skills gaps mentioned in this body of literature revealed a list of 22 clusters of skills and dispositions that employers and wider stakeholders want to see in university graduates. The five skills clusters mentioned most frequently were:

• Analytical skills
• Teamwork and interpersonal skills
• Self-development
• Self-management
• Communication skills.

Other skill clusters mentioned in the literature included leadership skills, reflective thinking, taking the initiative and conflict management.

The findings were reviewed and refined by the partnership and complemented with the findings from stakeholder consultations in Tanzania and Uganda. This helped to identify the most relevant skills for each country and university context and to prioritise skills to bring into curricula at a local level.

From theory to practice

In order to take this learning from theory to practice, the skills clusters – and stakeholder insight – were mapped onto the Taxonomy of Significant Learning framework to create a skills matrix.

Developed by L Dee Fink, the Taxonomy of Significant Learning recognises six kinds of learning: foundational knowledge; application; integration; human dimension; caring and learning how to learn. These six kinds of learning are related and interwoven.

This was an appropriate approach for TESCEA because the framework encourages transformative learning approaches. It also recognises that gaining experiential skills and growing as a person (dispositions, attitudes) are of equal importance to cognitive learning outcomes.

Over the past two years, the TESCEA team has held a series of course redesign workshops with teaching staff in the four universities – Mzumbe University and University of Dodoma in Tanzania and Gulu University and Uganda Martyrs University in Uganda.

Facilitated by the Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (AFELT) in Kenya and international development charity, INASP, in the UK, these workshops – three in each institution – have helped lecturers to conceptualise their course content through concept mapping, develop learning outcomes, and design assessments and teaching activities that lead to transformative learning.

The workshops focus on four main aspects of course design: the concepts to be learned; learning outcomes for each concept; assessment; and teaching and learning strategies. The skills matrix adds an important lens to this work. It helps teaching staff to think about how the various components of a redesigned course are contributing to the development of not just the subject knowledge but also the other skills that graduates need after graduation.

There are different ways to apply this lens. For example, initially in Mzumbe University in Tanzania, the skills matrix was applied after staff had summarised points within the four themes for their course on large sheets of paper. Participants then revisited these four themes and added sticky notes to show where and how key skills relating to critical thinking and problem solving could be addressed.

An alternative approach was taken in Uganda Martyrs University and afterwards in the other universities, where ‘skills’ or ‘competencies’ was included as a fifth theme within the course redesign process so these wider skills were considered at the same time as the concepts, outcomes and approaches.

One computer science lecturer from Tanzania explained how this worked in practice: “The matrix provided me with different views of how to teach my learners. I was able to understand how I can make my students learn through creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. I took the dimensions of the matrix as viewpoints and data in it as views. For each learning outcome, I used these views to choose how I want to achieve the outcome.

“Before, my students were only acquiring knowledge from me, but I could not evaluate if they were able to apply the knowledge. The use of the matrix has enabled students to understand concepts easily and apply and integrate them into real-world scenarios, which means they will able to reach the goal by the end of the course.”

And this is the aim of TESCEA: to help lecturers teach in ways that ensure graduates leave university not just with subject knowledge but also the wider skills they need for their own employment, to make a positive difference in the wider world and to be better equipped to adapt to changing situations.

Joanna Wild is the lead on technology-enhanced capacity development at INASP. She acts as curriculum and online learning advisor for the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) partnership. She can be contacted at jwild@inasp.info. Dr Mary Omingo is a founder member of the Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (AFELT) in Kenya. She is AFELT’s course redesign lead within the TESCEA partnership. She can be contacted at omingomary@gmail.com.

TESCEA is part of SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform), which is managed on behalf of the Department for International Development (DFID) by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International. The TESCEA partnership is led by INASP (UK), working with Mzumbe University (Tanzania), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), Gulu University (Uganda), Uganda Martyrs University (Uganda), the Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (Kenya) and Ashoka East Africa (Kenya).