Online degree programme delivers 90% graduate employment

The story of students who cannot find work after completing their degrees in East Africa is fast becoming stale. That’s because the story has been told over and over again, but universities here continue to churn out learners who lack the necessary skills to compete in the 21st-century labour market.

For instance, a 2016 British Council study estimated graduate unemployment in Kenya at 16%, while the ministry of public service and labour in Rwanda says 13% of university leavers cannot find a job. The United Nations 2017 Human Development Index report estimated that 12.9% of graduates in Tanzania were jobless.

However, one university programme in the region is rewriting the story to give students hope. It is prioritising skills education and learner competencies and is getting almost 90% of its students to work within six months of graduation. That university is Kepler.

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“Employers are willing to recruit Kepler students immediately they are through with their programme because the students have built a reputation [in the region],” said Jeannette Mutoni, human resources manager for Igihe News in Rwanda.

“Kepler students have hands-on soft skills and can actually do the work. We have heard some [students] have even been recruited before they have completed the programme.”

That is because the programme, a collaboration with the Southern New Hampshire University or SNHU in the United States, greatly focuses on learner competencies and prioritises skills education when preparing its students for the job market, unlike many institutions of higher learning in the region which focus on teaching, generation of new knowledge and research as their core roles.

The Kepler programme, delivered online, focuses on measuring students’ abilities to demonstrate skills or competencies rather than grades and its curriculum is developed based on employers’ feedback, said Karoli Kolokonyi, director of careers and alumni affairs at the programme.

The programme equips its students with soft skills to supplement the degree programmes it offers with its partner university – SNHU. They include communication skills, technology or digital literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, research and analytical skills and professional competencies as well as cultural literacy.

The nature of the programme’s structure helps students to learn by doing. Students are able to interact with the real-world and workplace experience.

The programme also has a career development component, which facilitates learners’ preparation and transition into the labour market.

“This is very good,” said Fagil Mande, educationist and former chairperson of the Uganda National Examinations Board. “It’s what we have been asking our universities to do. Focus on skills, skills, and skills. We need students who can do something, who can solve our society’s challenges.

“That is exceptional [if almost 90% of the Kepler graduates get jobs within months],” he added.

The Kepler programme evolved out of the success of Generation Rwanda (GR), a holistic university scholarship programme that saw more than 200 Rwandan students graduate from local universities between 2008 and 2012.

The GR programme was a success, transforming able but financially stranded students into exceptional graduates with a competitive edge. GR graduates were known as professionals who were mostly bilingual (eloquent in French and English) and had technology and other soft skills.

So, the founders of GR wanted to scale this model. And, from recruiting about 50 students a year in GR, they moved to recruiting 160 students a year. GR then partnered with SNHU in 2013 to incorporate more undergraduate programmes.

The Kepler programme enrols between 150 and 160 students a year at its Kigali base and 50 students at its Kiziba refugee camp base. Fifty percent of these are female and 50% male, said Sylvia Uhirwa, director of external relations at Kepler.

“The founders of Kepler wanted to bridge the gap of quality education in the region and to give students an opportunity to hone their skills as they prepare for the job market,” she said.

Kepler also allows African students to tap into the SNHU programme without having to move to the US.

Kolokonyi says Kepler’s main objective is to produce graduates who meet labour market needs.

“Our disciplines are business-oriented. Delivery is competence-based. Students go through a foundation programme to understand our core values of communication and technology and other soft skills before we enrol them on undergraduate programmes,” said Kolokonyi.

So Kepler primarily employs a project-based approach which uses real-world practical scenarios and current events to teach. Evaluation is measured based on the student’s ability to complete required tasks.

For example, if students were learning something related to research, they might be tasked with researching the topic of their interest in their community and presenting a research report as a deliverable, to demonstrate their mastery of what they have learned.

Kepler incorporates a career development programme, which focuses on career coaching and internship to facilitate learners’ preparation and transition into the labour market. Under this programme, students are taken through how to behave as professionals and what is expected of them in the labour market.

The learners are also taught how to write resumes and cover letters, and to prepare for an interview.

“We conduct a series of assessments to measure students’ mastery levels in different supplementary courses which are out of input from employer feedback,” said Kolokonyi. “We use the assessment data to offer interventional support to an identified group of students with the same needs.

Our approach is all-round to enable learners to excel when they get to the workplace.”

Chris Aldo Mugisha is one student who has benefited from this model. The 20-year-old enrolled in Kepler in 2017 and completed his bachelor of arts programme in management this year.

Thanks to Kepler, he was able to find work before even completing his undergraduate programme. In his second year, Mugisha was hired to work as an assistant in the admissions office at Kepler. Today, he works as a project coordinator for a social innovations hub, Impact Hub Kigali, which supports entrepreneurs in Rwanda who are into emerging technologies.

“Beyond class, the programme gave us other skills such as communication skills, technology, and how to write resumes and cover letters,” said Mugisha in an interview with University World News.

“They gave us a foundation programme, which we started before enrolling for our bachelors. The programme was between six and 12 months.”

Under the foundation programme, Mugisha and his class were taught public speaking and other negotiation skills and competencies needed for the job market.

“The tutors took us through what is required in today’s job market, and how we can position ourselves to compete,” said Mugisha. “They walked the entire process with us until our internship and graduation.”

Now it is very easy for him to find a job and become productive.

“This is the type of education that we [in East Africa] need,” said Mande. “Education that is very practical and focuses on individual learner abilities and solving societal challenges.”

Mande called on universities and other institutions of higher learning in the region to refocus their curriculum and learner experiences on skills education and what the labour market actually needs.

A 2018 report by the World Economic Forum said nearly 50% of global companies expect automation to lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce by 2022, based on the job profiles of their employee base today.

This means employees with skills and technology competencies such as technology design and programming are more likely to thrive, as well as workers with ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation.

“As the fourth industrial revolution unfolds, companies are seeking to harness new and emerging technologies to reach higher levels of efficiency of production and consumption, and to expand into new markets, and compete on new products for a global consumer base composed increasingly of digital natives,” said the report.

“Institutions of higher learning need to prepare their learners for this new reality,” said Mande. “They cannot continue to teach things the way they were doing in the 1990s. Their curriculum needs to be in tandem with society needs and what actually takes place in the workplace.”

Mande said education institutions could make slight adjustments to their programmes to make them more relevant to today’s labour market.

“It’s not something that can happen overnight, but we [institutions of higher learning] need to start making deliberate moves to focus our education and learners to solve society’s problems,” he said in an interview with University World News.

“Education institutions can collaborate with employers to prepare learners for the workplace,” he said.

However, Professor Venansius Baryamureeba, an educationist and former vice-chancellor at both the Uganda Technology and Management University and Makerere University, has in the past said it was not the concern of a university whether graduates leave universities with skills or not. Graduates could always acquire skills after completion of their university programme, he said.

He said the role of universities should be to teach and engage in research to generate new knowledge.

But, as the debate on the role of universities rambles on, Kepler is slowly rewriting the unemployment story in the region and is equipping its learners with the necessary skills to fit into the labour market.

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