The Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) is a membership organization comprising about 100 public and private universities in the five East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It recently commissioned a survey of employers in the five countries to seek their views on the employability of graduates from its member universities.
The survey revealed some stark and disturbing facts. Between 51% to 63% of the graduates were found to be ‘half-baked’, ‘unfit for jobs’ and ‘lacking job market skills’. The worst records were in Uganda (63%) and Tanzania (61%). At a time when great efforts are being made to increase student enrollment in higher education in Africa and when the acute shortage of highly skilled human resources is proving to be a handicap to growth and development, these findings are, to put it mildly, alarming. However, although the study covered only five countries and robust data on the quality of graduates in other African countries are not available, there have been concerns about the poor quality of graduates in most Sub-Saharan African countries for quite some time.
Indeed, previous warning signals exist. For example, in Nigeria in 2010, the accreditation of several academic departments in over 20 universities was withdrawn by the national regulatory body, the National Universities Council, on grounds of lack of infrastructure and suitably qualified academic staff. In 2011, the Engineering Registration Board of Kenya refused to recognize the engineering degree from three leading public universities in Kenya because of poor curricula, lack of qualified lecturers and shortage of appropriate facilities. In the same year, on similar grounds, the Council of Legal Education of Kenya rejected the applications to practice law from graduates of several public and private universities in Kenya. In South Africa as well it has been reported that many law firms have found that the LLB graduates are unable ‘to draw affidavits and pleadings as they lack both numeracy and literacy skills’.
A direct consequence of the poor quality of graduates has been the increasing unemployment of graduates. This is what prompted the Association of African Universities to organize its General Conference in May 2013 in Gabon under the theme ‘Transforming Higher Education for Graduate Employability and Socio-Economic Development’. One of the main objectives of the Conference was to ‘examine the disturbing issue of graduate employability which is confronting African countries to a greater extent than had been perceived, and to develop strategies for higher education institutions that will facilitate self-reforms needed to tackle this growing menace’.
A Communiqué that was issued at the end of the Conference made recommendations for action at various levels. Universities were asked to pay serious and strategic attention to relevant curricula, teaching and research to guarantee graduate employability. Governments and other stakeholders were requested to invest in higher education institutions by increasing substantially their financial commitment to them, and to ensure that, in the selection of leadership and management of universities, meritocracy should be the prime driving factor. Funding agencies and international development partners were asked to consult adequately with African universities in the setting of African development agenda, and to pursue and encourage strategies of mutual benefit that will promote sustainable relationships in the implementation of their support to African countries and universities as graduate unemployment is being tackled.
Poor quality of graduates and consequently graduate unemployment can have serious social, economic and political ramifications, as witnessed during the Arab spring. Urgent remedial action is therefore called for.