The employability challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A three-year research effort by the British Council has mapped important trends in higher education enrolment, labour markets, and graduate employability in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa
  • It finds that the higher education systems in all four countries have expanded considerably over the past decade and more
  • However, there are significant quality issues in many universities and other recent studies, as well as employer surveys, indicate that a large percentage of university graduates lack the skills needed to gain and hold suitable employment
  • The need for investment and policy to address the issue is great as economies in the region continue to grow rapidly but so too does the youth population, which is already the world’s fastest-growing university-aged cohort and which is forecast to grow by another 40% by 2030

The British Council recently released the results of a three-year study on university education and graduate employability in four notable markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development: Repositioning Higher Education in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa paints a dramatic picture of surging youth populations and booming demand for higher education. But it also highlights the challenges of maintaining quality as rapidly expanding higher education systems struggle to accommodate growing numbers of students – often without commensurate increases in funding or faculty or with strong-enough links to employers.

Africa, the report notes, is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The continent has seen major increases in foreign investment, tourism, and trade over the past decade and more, but Sub-Saharan countries also remain heavily reliant on resource industries. This means they remain exposed to the inevitable ups and downs in world commodity prices, including oil. And this in turn provides many governments in the region with a ready motivation to expand service and technology industries and to move generally toward more diversified knowledge economies.

The sense of urgency that many Sub-Saharan governments feel in this respect is heightened by the fact that the region is also home to the fastest-growing youth population in the world. There are 226 million 15-to-24-year-olds in Sub-Saharan Africa today and that cohort is set to grow by more than 40% by 2030. “This so-called ‘youth bulge’ can be a motor for prosperity for all in the region if it is appropriately harnessed, but the prospects for doing so depend to a large extent on universally available and high quality education at all levels,” says the report. “Failure to address the educational aspirations and needs of the youth is likely to lead not only to sluggish economic growth, but also to youth unrest, a lingering sense of injustice and lack of purpose, and, in the most extreme cases, to extremism and violence.”

The supply-demand gap

Governments across the region have been working to open more university seats, both by converting colleges or university colleges to full public universities, and also by opening the door to greater private-sector provision of higher education.

This has led to some truly remarkable increases in university enrolment. In Kenya, for example, the number of university students doubled between 2012 and 2015 alone. The number of full-time students in public universities in Ghana increased by 76% between 2008/09 and 2014/15, and, over the same period, the number of students in the country’s private universities grew by 272%.

More broadly, only Asia grew faster than Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of total higher education enrolment between 1999 and 2013. The region saw its head count of higher ed students grow from 2.3 to 6.6 million over those 14 years. And yet, participation rates in Africa continue to lag well behind global norms. The gross enrolment ratio across Sub-Saharan Africa sits at about 8.2% today, but this compares to a global rate of nearly 33%.

This gap underscores the magnitude of the challenge facing Sub-Saharan educators and policy makers: not only must higher education systems absorb the dramatic increases in student numbers that they have already seen, they also need to expand a great deal more if they are to accommodate the growing youth populations across Africa.

The gross enrolment ratio in Kenya, for example, is still around only 4%. Practically speaking, a large majority of Kenyans simply do not have access to university education, with only about half of qualifying students able to obtain a place in a public university.

The situation is much the same in Nigeria, where the higher education system is nowhere near keeping up with demand and where only one in five applicants can find a place in a public university.

All of this growth has also put considerable pressure on quality controls in Sub-Saharan institutions. “Attention to quantity has not always been accompanied by an adequate emphasis on quality,” says the British Council. “Many institutions suffer from very large class sizes, with numbers in excess of 500 in an undergraduate class being common, on account of the lack of funds to recruit lecturers and, in some cases, a shortage of appropriately qualified candidates. In addition, there are complaints of inadequate physical infrastructure, lack of laboratories and equipment for scientific, engineering and agricultural studies, outdated curricula, ineffective pedagogical methods and inefficient administration. In many cases, these challenges are the direct result of a rapid expansion of the system without corresponding increases in funding or concern for the students’ learning experience.”

The employability gap

These quality concerns are directly linked to report’s focus on employability of university graduates, a link that is supported by other recent research in the field, including a study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa which estimated that more than half of all graduates in the region are “inadequately prepared for employment.”

The situation, however, naturally varies from country to country. In South Africa, for example, graduate unemployment actually declined from 2001 to 2011 (from about 18% to 5% of graduates unemployed). But university enrolment has spiked sharply there as well, nearly doubling between 2000 and 2013, and it remains to be seen if the domestic economy will be able to absorb greater numbers of university graduates at the same rate. National unemployment rates have been stubbornly high in South Africa (the national rate is currently hovering around 26%) and the public sector, which is traditionally a major employer of university graduates, is arguably overbuilt already.

Meanwhile in Kenya, unemployment is especially high – in the range of 67% in 2015 – among those aged 15 to 34. And the job market for university graduates in Nigeria is also very competitive: job openings suitable for university graduates attracted an average of 83 applicants in 2014 (up from 69 applicants in 2010). In Ghana, more than 71,000 graduates enter the job market each year, competing with an estimated 200,000 unemployed graduates in the domestic economy.

The British Council report recognises that the issue of graduate employability extends well beyond the walls of the university, and that such a broad societal issue will draw on an equally broad group of stakeholders for improvement, including employers and governments.

However, the report concludes with a range of recommendations focused on the universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, and argues for new investments and innovation to improve the quality of instruction and the depth and relevance of the curricula on offer.

It also advocates for expanded career services for students and graduates as well as a stronger role for work placements, volunteering, and service placements in Sub-Saharan university programmes.

The scale of the challenge (and the opportunity) facing the region means that this is likely to be an area of increasing focus going forward, both for local governments and for the international community, including foreign donors, investors, and educators.

A number of Sub-Saharan markets, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana among them, have emerged as significant international education markets over the past decade. And we can expect that the prevailing demographic and economic trends in the region will only add to the opportunity that these markets represent for student recruitment and transnational education in the years ahead.

For additional background, please see “Kenyan students staying home in greater numbers but quality concerns persist”, “Ghana emerging as an important sending market in Sub-Saharan Africa”, and “Nigeria tightens foreign exchange controls to limit use for study abroad”.



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