Youths stuck as HE fails to provide job-relevant skills

The journey from school to well-paying jobs is full of challenges to most young people in 22 countries in Western and Central Africa, as universities and other tertiary education institutions in the region have not been responding quickly to the changing nature of work, according to the World Bank.

Highlighting the issue in its regional education strategy report, From School to Jobs: A journey for the young people of Western and Central Africa, the World Bank said Western and Central Africa, or AFW, is currently at the bottom of the global human capital development rankings.

Countries that form the World Bank’s AFW region include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Gambia. Other members of the group are Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

The report, which outlined the World Bank’s plan for supporting education in the region between 2022 and 2025, identified poor investment in education, conflict and violence, chronic social and economic fragility and low quality of tertiary education as key barriers to job creation.

Quality and relevance lacking in education

According to Ousmane Diagana, the World Bank’s vice president for the Western and Central Africa region, whereas higher education is the cornerstone of development, most countries have failed to expand job-relevant skills training in tertiary institutions.

“Although AFW has seen a significant increase in access to tertiary education, the region’s Gross Enrolment Rate which stands at 11% in 2020, or about 4.2 million youth, remains lower than that in other regions,” stated Dr Ekua Nuama Bentil, an education specialist at the Education Global Practice of the World Bank and one of the architects of the regional education strategy.

In a background paper, ‘Targets in the West and Central Africa Education Strategy: Background note on methodology’, Bentil and her associates stated that quality and relevance of academic education and training had been too low in the AFW countries.

“Job creation has not kept pace with the number of youths graduating from these programmes, such that, in some countries, the tertiary educated graduates have among the highest unemployment and underemployment rates,” noted Bentil and her associates.

According to the World Bank, tertiary education in most countries in AFW has suffered from poor foundational learning in primary and secondary education to the extent that a large number of young people who transition to tertiary education lack basic skills in mathematics and literacy.

To improve the situation, the World Bank is urging governments in those 22 countries to reduce learning poverty and expand access to job-relevant skills training by increasing Gross Enrolment Rates in tertiary education from the current 11% to 14% by 2025 and to 20% by 2030.

Bentil and her associates stated that such improvements would add 3.7 million more young people into tertiary institutions by 2025. During the same period one million more youth would obtain digital skills in tertiary boot camps and 60% of them would get well-paid jobs.

The crisis of underfunding

But there are indicators that such targets will be hard to achieve taking into account that education in the entire region is grossly underfunded. Based on data for 17 countries in the region, between 2017 and 2019, only Burkina Faso, Capo Verde, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo spent at least 4% of their Gross Domestic Product on education.

During the same period Chad, Guinea, Mauritania, and Gambia spent only about 2.2% of their GDP, although the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recommends that each country should spend 6% or more of its GDP on education.

But investing in education alone will not be enough in that, whereas there had been attempts to expand access to higher education in AFW, the World Bank noted that the situation had been made more complicated by the existence of high levels of conflict and violence in the region.

The World Bank warned that, although many governments in the region are signatories to the protocol, Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, that is not enough, as advocacy alone is insufficient to combat violence and conflict.

Breakdown in social contracts

The report expressed concern that, in most countries in AFW, social contracts are breaking down and violent conflicts are on the upswing, driven by insurgency movements and community conflicts.

Of the region’s 22 countries, the report says half of them are classified as nations afflicted by fragility, conflict and violence and, to make matters even worse, 75% of the region’s half a billion people live in those countries.

According to the report, the impact of the violent social upheavals on all levels of education has been devastating. Since 2010, there have been at least 2,880 violent events in and around educational institutions and there are no indicators that patterns of violence are about to change.

Even though the widening of access to tertiary education and expanding job opportunities are deemed to be critical to preventing youth from joining extremist organisations, most education and training programmes are not preparing graduates for fields in which labour market demand is high, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM subjects.

The report noted that graduates from tertiary STEM programmes make up fewer than 25% of graduates in the region. For instance, in Sierra Leone, the share of university graduates in information and communications technology stands at 8% and the situation is even lower in some countries in the Sahel.

Rapid population growth that currently stands at 3% on average in AFW countries is also putting pressure on higher education systems to accommodate rising enrolments.

To overcome some of the challenges, the report is urging AFW countries to take advantage of the digital technology revolution that is creating new opportunities in many parts of the world.

The report argues that new technologies would help AFW countries to modernise and update their higher education systems and enhance job opportunities for graduates.

Suggested measures to dismantle barriers to skills acquisition should include adoption in the universities and other tertiary institutions of microcredentials and other qualifications focused on specialised education and professional career disciplines.

In this context, targeted boot camps can help to reinforce interest in STEM programmes and could also offer a second chance to students who would have dropped out of higher education.

As Diagana pointed out, the report provides a roadmap for improving educational outcomes and job-creation opportunities in AFW countries, but the main question remains as to whether there is sufficient and collective political commitment to overcome the overriding challenges.