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By Cosmas Mwikirize

Education is always touted as a magic bullet for economic emancipation. However, the preponderance of evidence has increasingly shown that an educated population does not necessarily lead to improved economic gains or employment opportunities. Nowhere else is this realer than in Africa. Although unemployment figures specific to graduates are scanty, conservative estimates suggest more than 60% of graduates in Uganda are unemployed. In Kenya, it takes an average of five years for a graduate to get a job.

Although several factors have been advanced to explain this malaise, let us give the education systems a hard look. It is no secret that the education we give to students is heavily mismatched with the needs of industry. Whereas the global economy has transitioned from agrarian, through industrial, to the current information and services age, the education system remains hugely boilerplate. Yes, many countries have succeeded in achieving universal literacy and numeracy at the elementary level, but this has often come at the cost of quality. Unfortunately, higher education institutions (universities, technical colleges, and public administration schools) sometimes suffer the consequence of this raw input. The big number of students also puts a strain on existing infrastructure and human resource. Subsequently, most products lack basic, technical and transferable skills to make them competitive in the marketplace.

Sadly, most of our arguments on this subject are arbitrary and short of fact. To deal with this problem, we need hard data on enrollment statistics, as well as graduate employment rates aligned to programs offered in our higher education institutions. Education should be adept at matching supply with demand by equipping learners with skills required by employers today, and in the future. If some program is no longer fancied in the market place, there is no need to continue offering it. Such feedback should be periodic and iterative to bear tangible results. The feedback informs evaluating the impact of policy changes as well. At the risk of throwing a jab at my own Makerere University, I will ask why we should have separate engineering degree programs in Electrical, Telecommunications, Computer and Software, plus Computer Science in the same University. Truly, the line between some of these programs is blurry. Such undue early-stage specialization starves students of a broader intellectual base. There is a multitude of similar duplication across the Higher Education sector in Uganda.

Second, an overhaul of the teaching and learning processes is critical. Rote learning should be minimized and emphasis should be put on critical and analytical thinking. This is vital because of the fast-paced technology-driven landscape faced by today’s workers in which they must learn, unlearn and relearn to adapt to the ever-changing job requirements.

Third, there is need to enhance collaboration between higher education institutions and industry. In the Western world, Career Fairs, where students interact with potential employers at an early stage are the norm. This way, they understand the skillset and aptitude requisite of a certain career path. Universities without dedicated career services programs are living in the past. In some Universities, business programs incorporate modules where a student is required to initiate a business idea, register a company, and leverage collaborations with legal, finance, sales, marketing and PR firms to get it off the ground. By the time they graduate, such enterprises would have morphed into viable establishments. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial talent in Africa, but oft, an unconducive education experience and a harsh business environment thwart it.

Fourth and relatedly, students must be involved in the community throughout their training. This can be in the form of paid or unpaid internships, co-ops, volunteering, and extra curricula activities. Through these, students enhance their soft skills and could discover hidden potential. I have seen students who focus on just reading and passing exams. Most have a lot of time on their hands, but spend all of it binge watching TV shows!

Certainly, the direct role of the Governments cannot be discounted. There is need for more investment in basic research through centralized funding agencies, buoyed by clear R&D priorities geared toward solving local problems. Currently, the funding remains at sequester levels. There is a smattering of damning statistics on Africa’s contribution to the knowledge economy: the continent, which constitutes 15% of the world’s population, produces only about 1% of scientific knowledge. There exist about 164 scientists per million inhabitants compared to 656 in Brazil, 4,180 in Europe and 4,663 in the USA. This must change. In developed countries, basic research is what usually spins off into new private ventures. Support for research in agriculture, clean energy, climate change, healthcare, transport, light manufacturing, and the extractives, supported by IT, will spur Africa’s transformation. Investment in education and research is a no-brainer: a well-educated workforce will result in high paying jobs and entrepreneurs, who can afford goods and services to support other local businesses and the wider economy. Further, research informs evidence-based debate toward solution of national and global problems.

In most African countries, the manufacturing and agriculture sectors have declined. There is increased reliance on the services sector, and this is unsustainable. On a positive note, there has been more investment in roads, rail, and electrification, as you would expect in a pre-takeoff economy. There is a cogent argument that investment in infrastructure without an enabling macro-economic environment for local entrepreneurs (many of whom are informal) does not improve productivity or job growth. The Government should do more to support the many informal entrepreneurs, especially via access to flexible credit. This will enable them to be more competitive, grow, pay more taxes and employ more people.

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Cosmas Mwikirize is a Contributor at the Nkafu Policy Institute focusing on East Africa. He is a Fulbright Fellow and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. His research interest is in improving ultrasound imaging for guidance of minimally invasive procedures such as oncological interventions and pain management. He holds a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering (Rutgers University), as well as Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in Electrical Engineering from Makerere University (MAK) in Uganda.

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