Half of university graduates in East Africa are ill-prepared for the job market.
A study conducted by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) to establish employers’ perceptions of graduates shows that more than 50 per cent of university graduates are half-baked as they lack basic workplace proficiencies.
This means university students are graduating without attaining basic and technical skills required in the job market, denying the five East African Community (EAC) economies the quality human capital that they need to grow.
“Universities in the East African region are producing a theoretical, unskilled and unpractical labour force,” Mayunga Nkunya, executive secretary of IUCEA, told an EAC higher education quality assurance forum in Arusha last week.
“Employers told us that graduates lack self-confidence at work, they can’t translate the knowledge they got in universities into work and they normally wait to be told what to do.”
Uganda is the worst
Uganda is the worst among the peers, with only 37 per cent of its graduates fit for the job market, whereas Tanzania has only 39 per cent of its degree holders rated as competent.
Comparatively, 45 per cent and 48 per cent of graduates in Burundi and Rwanda, respectively, are competent for the job market. Kenya has the best rated graduates, with 49 per cent found up to the task.
The findings on the state of higher education in the EAC are a signal that lack of competence in primary and secondary schools is permeating universities, hurting the credibility of students and consequently diluting the quality of the region’s human capital base.
The latest studies by education think-tanks Uwezo and Twaweza East Africa show that children in primary schools are not learning, the worst hit being those in rural schools — at least seven out of 10 Standard Three pupils cannot read a Standard Two-level story.
In terms of numeracy skills, up to 37 per cent of Standard Three pupils in the region are unable to tackle a mathematics problem set at Standard Two difficulty level.
In Tanzania, only four out of 10 pupils in Standard Seven can read and understand simple paragraphs in English and Kiswahili and solve a basic arithmetic problem expected of a Standard Two pupil, according to the studies released late last year.
The EAC is banking on a highly skilled labour force to drive growth past the 10 per cent rate mark annually in the coming decade.
Economists from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) and the Africa Union Commission (AUC) project that the EAC bloc will post one of the highest economic growth rate in all the five regions on the continent this year while registering a jump in new investments.
But long-term growth, they said, will be hinged on availability of skilled human capital that can freely move across the region.
Universities are expected to ride on the wave of increased demand for professional services in the 140-million-people EAC economy and a combined GDP of over $80 billion by producing skilled graduates.
A recent survey by the World Bank and Kenya’s Export Promotion Council found that demand for professional services such as banking, insurance, legal, accounting, architectural, ICT and engineering has been rising with the progression of the integration project, offering universities a chance to boost their enrolment and course offering.
The ongoing reconstruction of East Africa’s infrastructure and the rising number of foreign investors eyeing the mergers and acquisitions market has created opportunities in project finance, venture capitalism, business formation and due diligence investigation, which require professional support, raising demand for highly skilled workers.
Pushing these projects through demands a wide range of professionals while demand in other key professions such as teaching, medicine and ICT is expected to edge up as the economies expand.
Guarantee quality of learning
As student numbers continue to swell, universities across the region are facing a growing headache: How to guarantee quality of learning. Concerns are growing that quality of learning is deteriorating faster than ever, even as regulators try to crack the whip on institutions.
Data from IUCEA show that in 2013 Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, with 290 universities and other degree-awarding institutions, enrolled 719,863 students.
Burundi universities took in 21,573 students, Kenya 279,501, Rwanda 71,644, Tanzania 182,359 and Uganda 147,786. The statistics do not include middle-skills institutions.
Although enrolment in higher education has been rising across East Africa, concerns have been growing over the universities’ effectiveness in preparing graduates to be competitive in the 21st century technology-driven era.
READ: Surging varsity enrolment in EAC pushes down standards
“Sometimes it’s the students themselves who are not interested in learning, because, mostly, they are in university because they have been pushed by their parents,” said Wardah Rajab-Gyagenda, a lecturer at the Islamic University in Uganda. “But also, some of the lecturers are not high achievers.”
Latest data from the think-tank Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) reveals that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania score relatively low in knowledge creation and application, quality of education institutions and innovation potential.