SOURCE: Gilbert Nganga  23 May 2014

At least half of graduates produced by East African universities are ‘half-baked’ for the job market, a damning survey by the bloc’s higher education regulator shows. The study, which polled employers across the region, concluded that graduates lacked employability skills – technical mastery and basic work-related capabilities.

The findings by the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, which regulates higher education in the East African Community’s five countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – confirms long-held concerns among employers that most graduates are not fully prepared for the job market.

This state of affairs, educationists warn, is denying the five economies the skills needed to drive growth.

The study shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.

Youth joblessness a real problem

So while thousands of young people are graduating each year, their qualifications are unable to secure many of them a job. And employers are increasingly shunning new graduates in favour of the highly skilled, complicating the problem of youth unemployment in the region.

Government data shows that youth unemployment hovers around 60% and remains one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth, with the potential risk of triggering social upheaval.

“Employers said most graduates lacked self-confidence, could not express themselves properly and lacked the technical mastery required in the jobs they are seeking,” said Professor Mayunga Nkunya, secretary to the IUCEA.

“It’s a time-bomb. What we have are very theoretical graduates,” he told a conference in Arusha, Tanzania, while releasing the findings.

The region had been hoping to use its growing number of graduates to drive economic growth following the decision to enter into an integration bloc, the East African Community, with a population base of over 140 million.

Regional integration, harmonisation

The bloc agreed to open up its borders to a free flow of human capital, with job-seekers easily seeking jobs in any of the five countries.

But educationists and labour economists said the damning state of the skills base means an imbalance is looming, where perceptions of the quality of graduates in each of the countries will determine the flow of labour.

“Clearly, employers in such a turn of events will seek Kenyan graduates who are perceived to be better prepared, shunning those from other countries,” said Dan Ngugi, an economist in Nairobi who is also a part-time lecturer.

“This could cause some discomfort where there will be a feeling that people from one country are taking up opportunities meant for those in another country. This could complicate the integration journey,” he added.

The findings pose a big headache for the IUCEA, which has been working on harmonisation of higher education in the region.

Harmonisation is aiming, among other things, to establish a fully-fledged credit transfer system that would allow students to move between universities in different countries without losing credits they have already accumulated.

But this plan has been riddled with delays and controversy arising from nationalistic interests, with partner countries unwilling to relinquish sovereignty for the sake of a regional system. There are also large variations in quality and curricula, length of degrees and financing of universities.

Quality concerns

Concerns over the quality of graduates comes at a time when differences in education systems and curricula among the five EAC states have complicated the free flow of labour. In Burundi, for example, higher education is relatively less developed than in Kenya.

Cross-border movement of professionals such as teachers has also been complicated by huge differences in wages paid across the region. Kenya pays the highest wages and it is feared that Kenyans seeking employment in neighbouring states may expect similar remuneration.

Tanzania, for instance, needs nearly 31,000 new teachers for both primary and secondary schools within two years to provide adequate education to an ever-increasing number of students.

“The quality of education is a big problem. This is because the demand for higher education has grown so rapidly. We were not prepared to ensure that the rapid expansion could be easily absorbed,” Nkunya told University World News.

“We are expanding in the absence of basic requirements like enough lecturers, books and infrastructure.”

“Higher education in the EAC has been seriously neglected over the years. However, this is changing. We have to admit as many students as we can but must guarantee quality. The situation is bad,” he said.

The report blames falling quality on universities admitting more students than they can handle and lacking adequate teachers. Education experts and university administrators have argued that additional enrolment can only be handled if the governments pump more funds into higher education, so institutions can afford to expand infrastructure and hire extra tutors.

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