From the field: Recruiting in East Africa

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • We continue our “From the Field” interview series today in conversation with Robert Wagubi, Executive Director of WR Education Placement Consultants in Uganda
  • Mr Wagubi notes that Uganda’s burgeoning oil industry, in existence since only 2010, is a major new employer, and reveals that growing East African economies tend to draw students back home after overseas studies
  • He offers tips about how to approach the Ugandan market, points to the recruiting success of Canada in particular, and discusses how to identify suitable partners in-market

The Republic of Uganda is one of the vast continent of Africa’s smaller countries, located in the sub-Saharan east and landlocked by larger neighbors such as Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a diverse nation, with forty languages spoken, but Swahili is the most commonly used in daily life, while English is an official language and also the main language of instruction.

Uganda boasts 29 universities serving about 200,000 students, with 30,000 graduating annually. Makerere University issues 30% of those annual qualifications and is ranked by Times Higher Education among the top five universities in Africa. Much of the Ugandan higher education market is driven by foreign students, and the schools themselves have adopted more internationalised curricula in recent years.

There are about 16,000 foreign students enrolled in Ugandan universities. Most choose Kampala International University, followed by Makerere University and Bugema University. The bulk are from Kenya, though Uganda has become a hub for students from all of East Africa. The main attraction for these students are the low fees for foreigners, a relatively safe environment, and the wide-ranging subjects available for study. For Kenyans, an extra enticement is the similarity of the education system to their home country in terms of standards and quality.

As we noted in an earlier report, interregional cooperation within the East African Community (EAC) has boosted access to education and mobility between the five member states of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. A 2012 bill signed by the Inter University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) furthered the trend. However, competition still exists, and Ugandan universities have been among the most aggressive recruiters in the region, another factor boosting inbound mobility.

In terms of outbound mobility, the latest UNESCO statistics indicate that roughly 5,200 Ugandan students are currently enrolled overseas. The total has been rising steadily since 2006, and has doubled over the past decade. Students prefer the UK and US, choosing those two destinations in almost equal numbers, with South Africa the third most popular option. In general, English-speaking destinations fare well, but countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Italy have also proven to be popular among Ugandan students.

ICEF Monitor recently spoke about the Uganda education market with Robert Wagubi of WR Education Placement Consultants. In the video excerpts that follow, Mr Wagubi offers his considerable insights on trends in Uganda and East Africa.

In our first interview segment below, he discusses Uganda’s investment in education, local demand for education, and points towards improved economies in the East African region as drivers for bringing internationally educated Ugandans back home after their studies.

Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with a median age of 15.6. Like other African countries, there is a skills gap that often results in university graduates remaining unemployed, but this is an especially pressing issue in a country whose youth are a higher percentage of the total population than anywhere else in the world. Estimates of youth unemployment range from 62% to 83%, the highest in Africa.

Even so, state expenditures on higher education have been low. Spending is slated to increase in 2016/17, driven in part by a boost in teacher salaries. Even more funding may be needed, however. A recent study showed that Ugandan universities, on the whole, operate on a below-cost-per-student basis, a loss that makes improving education outcomes difficult. In a related development, a 2014 IUCEA study showed that 63% of Ugandan graduates were not properly prepared for the employment market.

However, during President Yoweri Museveni’s long rule, Uganda has made progress in some areas. The World Bank’s Uganda Poverty Assessment 2016 says the country cut poverty by nearly two thirds between 2006 and 2013. This shift is one of the highest in all of sub-Saharan Africa during that time period. How much of this is a result of policy is in debate, however the government has invested in infrastructure and the report credits government trade policies with making a difference.

Rising income levels mean more Ugandans are earning tertiary degrees. But with many of these coming from private universities that arose to fill the country’s large capacity gap, academic standards and quality controls remain areas of concern. For example, in 2007 Kampala International University (KIU) began awarding PhDs in humanities but didn’t have permission to do so from the Uganda National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) until two years later. In 2013 NCHE declared all of the 66 doctorates KIU had awarded the previous two years invalid link to. And in 2014, five universities, including Makerere University, were reprimanded for teaching courses without applying for full accreditation from the NCHE.

These problems have been addressed by the government, and tertiary degrees remain respected by Ugandan employers. Demand for them is soaring. Business owners prefer tertiary graduates for all jobs, and degree holders are routinely hired for positions that could be filled by vocational and technical graduates. Ugandan youth are well aware of this fierce competition for the best positions, and the idea of attaining a tertiary degree is now normalised among not only them, but among their parents and in the wider culture as well.

Students who take the extra step of completing an international qualification have an advantage in this competitive job market. In our second interview segment below, Mr Wagubi talks about effective international education marketing strategies for Uganda, focusing on Canada’s recruiting success there. He makes the point that Canada, which is a top ten destination for Ugandan students, may have created a blueprint for marketing in the region.

The Ugandan government has implemented programmes designed to funnel students toward areas needed by labour market. In 2008, it passed the Business Technical Vocational Education and Training Act, and has since increased investment and sharpened focus on skills training via its BTVET Strategic Plan 2011-2020. Today, 90 districts have at least one BTVET facility equipped to provide training, and enrolment has topped 150,000 students. The government intends to shortly have BTVET schools in all 112 districts of the country.

The government also created the Higher Education Student’s Financing Board (HESFB) in 2014 to increase access to higher education for the rising number of needy students earning the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) awarded to secondary school graduates. The programme is aimed at students who don’t receive state scholarships and can’t raise cash for self-sponsorship. It also aims to address the problem of tertiary participation rates that hover around 6%.

How the state budget is applied to higher education moving forward will likely be affected by the most significant event in Uganda in recent years: the discovery of major oil deposits in 2010. While the announcement generated excitement, the example of Nigeria looms large over discussions about how to manage this potential source of wealth. Nigeria’s oil has brought prosperity but challenges as well, particularly in the form of damage to traditional industries such as fishing and farming.

Uganda vows not to make the same mistakes. President Museveni has asserted that no revenue will be spent on consumables, but rather on areas that boost national growth. The country of Norway – one of international oil’s biggest success stories – is assisting Uganda in various areas. The Ugandan government plans to funnel oil profits into a national fund similar to Norway’s, and President Museveni speaks of the oil industry supplementing rather than dominating the economy. According to some assessments, Ugandan oil could double the state budget if successfully managed.

In our third and final interview segment below, Mr Wagubi notes that Uganda’s burgeoning oil and gas industry is where jobs for engineering graduates are opening up, and points to other in-demand degrees in Uganda and in East Africa as a whole. He also offers useful tips for educators working in the Ugandan market.

For additional background on East Africa, please see:



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