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Past Editorial : April 2011

April 2011

Graduate Un(der)employment and the Sparking of a Revolution in Africa

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.



When an unemployed Tunisian university graduate was roughed up by security forces, which then prompted his immolation, no one thought this would be news. As it turns out, he sparked a fire now blazing in many other countries—fire not simply toppling governments but also threatening to alter geopolitical dynamics. The un(der)employment rate of university graduates has now become a major private, social, national and international issue.

This editorial attempts to review issues of graduate un(der)employment in the region at a time when university expansion and capacity building have, ironically, become a major continental phenomenon.


The Higher Education Landscape: Brief Profile

Higher Education in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is still an “elite affair”. For instance, while the gross enrollment ratio for Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania hover around 1-2%, a few countries such as South Africa and Egypt claim15% and 22% respectively. In terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria, with about one million students, comparable to Egypt which is considered to have the highest number of post-secondary students, at over 1.2 million. In some countries, expansion has been taking place by expanding intake in existing institutions largely without commensurate investment and resources. Kenya and Uganda, have introduced what is now largely known as “Mode I” and Mode II” delivery—one fee-based and the other one fee-exempt.  In Ethiopia, numerous brand new institutions have opened and existing ones considerably expanded their enrollments. In Ghana, the country is gearing up to open two new universities, part of an election pledge. In the last decade, private providers have mushroomed across the region. Spurred by huge demand, they have mounted “marketable” programs and flexible delivery modes—both presential as well as distance. Despite  persistent problems with quality (which has resulted in massive closings in Kenya, Democratic Republic Congo and South Africa) private providers have captured 25 percent of the enrollment in many countries.


Compatibility of Programs and Labor Market Reality

Weak coordination between educational programs and the labor market challenge many countries. Africa has suffered from persistent incongruity since independence. To be sure, Africa has never produced enough jobs for its graduates since the turmoil of the 1970s. Even during the Cold War era, the socialist satellite states in the Eastern Bloc, that promised to offer jobs on graduation, failed on their promises though they made a vigorous effort to keep an “artificial” balance between employment and labor force. Even when congruity exists, the quality of graduates has been problematic for the labor market throughout the region. Employers have consistently complained and charge the “massification” of the system for the declining quality in higher education. In most African countries, enrollment is tipped towards social sciences, humanities and arts despite UNESCO’s recommendation to pursue the 60:40 ratio in favor of science and technology. A few countries, are  pursuing a strategy towards increased enrollment in engineering, science and technology. In Ethiopia, for example, the goal is for up to 80 percent of enrollment in these areas.


“You don’t Train People for Jobs that Do Not Exist”

The phenomenon of un(der)employment has been an African challenge ever since the severe economic, social, and political upheavals in the 1970s and 1980s. While the continent is more stable in recent years,  the un(der)employment phenomenon will remain strong.   Africa is a “young” continent; it is expected to account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s population aged 15-24 by 2050. This means that the higher education sector needs to continue to cater to the burgeoning college age cohort in the region. Low enrollment rates in the region require that expansion efforts embrace both contemporary as well as distance/online education. More than a decade ago, I had an interesting, if not unsettling, discussion on the expansion of university education with a scientist professor at a flagship university in East Africa. The professor was critical of the major expansions in his country, because, he argued, “you do not train people for jobs that do not exist.” It was an “unsophisticated”, if not poorly informed, position that aligns training and education with an existing job market.


Relevance of Higher Education to Development: Is it a Relevant Question?

We are currently witnessing some unproductive research attempts that are investigating if higher education in Africa contributes to the region’s development. What is baffling to many is that the question is stressing not on “how” but “whether”. Investing resources and time in such a futile exercise, when this is now beyond any refutation, is simply misguided. Furthermore, when the question of “how” is invoked, the issue of relevance comes into play in virtually all related dialogues. In these dialogues that focus on how higher education should be relevant to national development, the needs of “the present and the now” prevail most often—with limited or little regard to future prospects. An agrarian economy fully preoccupied with contemporary agricultural needs and issues, as Africa, should also seriously look into promoting nanotechnology, bioengineering, and space science. It will be too simplistic, if not misguided or even detrimental, to exclusively tag relevance to immediate and present needs alone. An effort to expand a national competitive edge that seriously takes cognizance of the future should not be construed as a luxury; instead it should be fully endorsed as a requisite exercise to ensure economic security and foster national interest. Even more so, it should be stressed that, what is relevant today may not be so tomorrow.


The Chronic Malady: Is there a Panacea?

The (potential) problem of graduate un(der)employment in Africa, which is growing at an accelerated pace, is a function of various factors which include high percentages of college-age population, a weak labor-absorbing economic environment, and rapid expansions of the higher education sector. The effort to address this chronic malady has seen some prominence especially after the Tunisia incident that swept North Africa and the Middle East. Even prior to the regional turmoil, some countries had taken measures to promote self-employment and address un(der)employment. Ethiopia, for instance, has embarked on the creation of a Center for Entrepreneurship, at the autonomous Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development—one of the seven institutes of technologies recently established under the Ethiopian Capacity Building Program “to enhance the role of the industrial sector as a source of employment and economic growth”. With high anticipation of growth and investment in Africa, entrepreneurial and innovative institutions are expected to foster employment and job creation in the region.   Notwithstanding the argument made on relevance elsewhere in this article, striking the right balance between labor force production and job market is vital in tracking the un(der)employment trends in the region. The first step is therefore building a national database that documents labor demand and supply. Others include consolidating public-private partnerships and university-industry cooperation; building a spirit of entrepreneurship and self-employment; promoting the culture of systematic mentoring and student internships; and job creation. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable to deploy “excess” labor force, both as a “national safety net” as well as foreign exchange earner as in, for instance Philippines which trains hundreds of thousands of its health workers for the United States, Europe and Gulf countries. Controversial as it may be, “exporting” excess national capacity in certain skill areas in some countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa for instance, is a possible consideration. For that matter, some experience already exist as in the employment of Nigerian and Kenyan university professors/teachers for expanding higher education system in Ethiopia and war ravaged DRC.



As the higher education system in the region continues to grow precipitously, the un(der)employment of graduates will continue to present serious and persistent challenges with wider national, regional and international repercussions. If the unprecedented developments that are currently sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East were fueled, even if marginally, by unemployed graduates, it will not be far fetched to assume their expansions beyond these troubled borders. As the experience of the embattled countries of the Middle East and North Africa indicates, un(der)employment issues, complex as they are, cannot simply be resolved by monetary means alone. The issues require sound economic, educational, and labor market policies; good and seasoned governance; and creative and enabling environment that promotes academic, intellectual, and economic freedom. This may be an opportune time to take proactive measures, guided by holistic policy review, informed actions, and sustained dedication while working intimately with a wide array of national, regional and international stakeholders.

To be sure, the silver bullet to fully cure the omnipresent albatross of massive graduate un(der)employment hovering over the skies of Africa may never be found—at least not in the foreseeable future. But a conscious and concerted effort to mitigate its impact must now start in earnest notwithstanding its potential for sparking social, political and economic transformation—in a revolution or evolution.

This editorial is a longer essay building on a blog post by the same author available at The World View.



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