The case for competency-based university curriculums

Growing concerns about the increasing unemployability of youth graduates from universities in the region known as the East African Community has put into sharp focus the need to rethink the quality of training and the relevance of courses offered by institutions of higher education in the region.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has ushered in profound technological advancements and provoked disruptions in the higher education ecosystem – and thus requires a mindset change in the way higher education is delivered.

Universities are expected to produce graduates with digital competence to fit into and fuel the digital labour market.

The use of robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented virtual reality, has created multilevel interaction between human beings and technology.

This will require graduates with the requisite digital skills, which may not be possible in the current approach to learning in higher education institutions.

Education 5.0

There is an urgent need for universities to adopt competency-based education and expound the three core and traditional functions referred to as Education 3.0 (1.0 teaching; 2.0 research; and 3.0 community outreach) to Education 5.0 (1.0 teaching; 2.0 research; 3.0 community outreach; 4.0 innovation; and 5.0 industrialisation).

This will help them to permanently consider the important symbiotic relationship between education, industry and the society in which the three coexist.

Universities in the region should start thinking of how they can use advanced technology to create learning experiences that cater for the needs and desires of current and future digital natives.

They need to put emphasis on producing empowered graduates with entrepreneurial skills for job creation or who will readily fit into the needs of the labour market and society in general.

Competency-based curriculum development requires benchmarking and training at least in three areas: at the higher education institution, in industries and in incubation centres and or start-ups.

Training in industries is linked to developing employability skills while training in incubation centres or start-ups is intended to promote self-employment mainly through entrepreneurship.

The shift is inevitable since traditionally, competency-based education was considered relevant and fit for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to produce middle-cadre technical graduates needed by the productive sectors.

Universities were expected to produce graduates imparted with new frontiers of knowledge and learning outcomes that would make them, upon graduation, occupy managerial positions in the production sector.

However, the development of new technologies has drastically changed this thinking and the focus has now moved to producing graduates with the required skills to match the dynamic trends of industry and societies at large.

These are some of the views that informed the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) conference at the end of July that brought together vice-chancellors from universities in East African country member states, to discuss the future of higher education in the region.

Paradigm shift

The conference developed strategies that will innovate our approaches of curriculum review and development to embed teaching methods that will produce graduates with skills to succeed as independent entrepreneurs or in the labour market.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education and the advancement and the ever-increasing emergence of new technologies in the delivery of higher education call for an urgent mindset change about the relevance and matching of skills acquired by graduates with the dynamic needs of the industry.

We believe that production of knowledge is the most important mandate of any university. This can only be achieved through research and subsequent innovation.

However, there are other critical roles a university can play and contribute to society. These include, among others, the development of technical, technological, digital and information skills required for industrialisation and new labour markets.

The emphasis on the need for a paradigm shift will require universities to come up with strategies to upgrade their traditional functions to include innovation and industrialisation. Such a change should involve the aggressive establishment of partnerships with the productive sector and industry in general.

One example of these best practices is the creation of centres of excellence.

IUCEA has been implementing a World Bank-funded project on the Eastern and Southern Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence Project (ACEII), whereby 16 centres out of the 24 are based in the East Africa Community and focus on five priority areas: namely, industry, agriculture, health, education and applied statistics.

The ecosystem around the centres of excellence must be kept alive for them to inspire other initiatives in the host universities and beyond.

There is, therefore, a need to take advantage of this initiative to establish research-intensive universities in the region and the policymakers should allow some universities to focus purely on research, and this will promote research and development.

Moreover, four incubation centres have been established in the framework of the centres of excellence project and they are making a positive impact. Industry partnerships should be deeply explored to market great ideas from students and researchers.

Under the regional facilitation of IUCEA, a similar model is being implemented in the TVET sector under the World Bank-funded East Africa Skills for Transformation and Regional Integration Project which covers three countries: namely, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

The project has established 16 regional TVET flagship institutes as centres of excellence in key growth sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, power and energy, agro-processing, transport and infrastructure, and ICT.

Such transformation is expected to contribute significantly to the industrialisation agenda of the East Africa Community. But success will depend on how fast the players are ready to support the paradigm shift and implement it.

Through research and innovation, universities must also pay a lot of attention to monetising intellectual property and encouraging their academics to generate more research funds.

The current knowledge-based society and the Fourth Industrial Revolution require universities to promote the use of ICTs in their teaching, learning and research activities, but also to support industries in the promotion of innovation based on the use of ICTs.

Professor Gaspard Banyankimbona is the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA).