Tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa is confronting probably the biggest challenge it will ever face: building up the human capital of a skyrocketing youth population, according to Lucy Heady, knowledge director for Education sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA).
She writes this in a recent post on the ESSA website. Heady writes that Africa’s working-age population is expected to double to 1 billion over the next 25 years and 450 million workers are projected to join the workforce.
While the potential for a so-called “demographic dividend” is huge, she writes, thus far most universities and technical colleges have simply been expanding class sizes without focusing on quality – “with terrible results”.
Graduate unemployment “Swathes of young people are leaving without the skills they need for work and the problem of graduate unemployment is rising,” she says. Founded in 2016, ESSA uses evidence to improve the tertiary education system, equipping young people in sub-Saharan Africa with the skills for work.
In an email interview with University World News, Heady said the inability of the sub-region to expand teaching, research and infrastructure capacity, largely as a result of stagnant or reduced funding of the tertiary sector, had been “a major setback for the higher education and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sectors for most countries”.
Furthermore, she said the grading system within tertiary education was a challenge. “For many young people it is difficult to get high grades and enter tertiary education. Flexible learning and courses are not common, and the emphasis on the theoretical rather than practical does not suit many young people’s needs,” she said.
“The lack of formal apprenticeship schemes and low availability of appropriate internships further exemplifies this challenge. Currently these training schemes sit largely in the infrastrucinformal sector, with diplomas and formal qualifications rarely awarded for apprenticeships.”
Heady said there was also a shortage of faculty (high student to teacher ratios) due to the sector’s inability to recruit, retain and train future faculty members. Faculty members, as well as new PhD graduates, were leaving the sector owing to better opportunities elsewhere.
“The effect of the above has led to a high cost of providing tertiary education, thereby limiting access to students, who cannot afford the fees and living costs,” she said. Faculty shortages The rapid growth in class sizes at universities and technical colleges has happened without a commensurate boost in qualified faculty.
A joint pilot study conducted by ESSA, the Association of African Universities, Ghana National Council for Tertiary Education and the Population Reference Bureau shows that Ghana alone needs an additional 3,410 faculty who are PhD holders to achieve the government’s desired teacher-student ratio, and as many as five times that number if the country is to achieve its policy goals by 2025.
Heady said there was a shortfall of staff and academics at universities and colleges across sub-Saharan Africa. “The impact of this shortfall is that students don’t fully understand what is being taught because there aren’t enough faculty members to tailor learning, track students’ grades, track absentees or provide any additional support.
“This means students finish university with minimal learning and limited skills for work. If you have a lower student to teacher ratio, faculty have more time for students and more time for practical work, which is essential to learn skills for the job market and broader life skills.”
Heady said the tertiary education sector in sub-Saharan Africa had a key role to play in preparing the youth for the labour market. Current curricula However, many education curricula are not fit for the current job market.
“The market requires certain skills such as ICT, data, communications, project management. If students try to enter the job market without basic skills in these areas, it will be difficult for them to get jobs.” She said even if young people have the best education and training, it doesn’t mean jobs will be available.
“Whilst there is opportunity for young people to take advantage of freelance work and be trained in entrepreneurship, this is not an easy route into work for everyone,” she said.
She called on universities and colleges to research the national and international labour markets, so young people can identify gaps in the market and work with industry and the education sector to find solutions. “There need to be more links between universities and industry, with more internships, placements and collaboration,” she said.
“Government and higher education institutions must be supported by industry and the international sector to develop targeted recruitment and retention strategies for faculty, to manage overall capacity to meet the demands of a broad range of stakeholders, and to create jobs in the education sector itself.
“Addressing these challenges will likely create many high-quality jobs for PhD graduates. More importantly, it will support growing student enrolment in tertiary education and contribute to broader economic and societal development,” she said.