Globally, unemployment- especially youth unemployment- has become a key debate, testing the capacity of government in solving problems and pushing society toward increasing levels of unsavoury attendant problems. It has become a global terror and target, getting concerns and efforts from government bodies, civil society, private business interests and concerned international groups. Unending studies and reports continue to be churned out in an attempt to understand the extent of this terror and identify the major components making up the whole, which need to be dealt with. The more authoritative of these noble efforts are indeed carried out by concerned external friends: I have participated in one myself. Governments have risen unto power in the unlikeliest of places with brooms that would sweep away the scourge of youth unemployment and deliver the green dreams that coloured the labours of past heroes. Even the media is replete with employer descriptions of unfit, unskilled but ‘educated’ job seekers: negative externalities from the education system (that’s where they come from, in their view). How is it possible that a young person can be educated, or better still pass through education, and be unfit?
Some recent arguments take this position: “While the importance of basic education in development has long been acknowledged, there is increasing recognition that without higher education too, none of these goals will be achieved. Yet, the university sector faces nothing short of a crisis. Systems have been allowed to expand without corresponding resources, leading to a catastrophic drop in quality and the churning out of increasing numbers of poorly equipped graduates onto an already congested job market (British Council’s ‘Students in the Driving Seat: Young People’s Voices on Higher Education in Africa (2015)”. This is the situation that perfectly describes the menace of graduate unemployment. In the same publication, “Expanding enrolments to higher education have allowed new segments of the population to experience the richness of wider social and cultural interactions and opened new possibilities of work and enterprise. Nevertheless, for many, the great promise of the university has not been fulfilled”. Pointedly, “Diplomas have not provided automatic white-collar employment as may have been the case in previous decades, and in some contexts such as Nigeria, rates of employment are not significantly higher for graduates than for those with primary-or secondary- level qualifications (National Bureau of Statistics (2011) 2011 Annual Socio-Economic Report)”.
If there is no significant difference in employment rate between primary, secondary and tertiary qualifications in Nigeria, then what really do we need to know about the processes that lead to employment and unemployment (whether graduate or youth)?
According to a chart showing career aspirations of surveyed final-year students from Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana in the British Council’s 2015 publication “Students in the Driving Seat: Young People’s Voices on Higher Education in Africa”, Nigeria is characterised by a high proportion of students (28 per cent) opting for further study, compared to 7 per cent in Kenya, 13 per cent in Ghana and 13.2 per cent in South Africa. There is, rather than “might” which was used in the report, a pull as well as a push factor here, with students feeling it is their only option given the lack of employment opportunities. I would most likely have gone unto a graduate program immediately (which would have been perfectly justifiable by what many of my undergrad lecturers regard as my ‘academic potentials’) if not for relevant and timely employment. Others, like my friends, have gone from pharmacy to photography – terrific switch. And others have settled into self-employment.
An undergraduate degree carries no weight again – even masters degree is declining, in some quarters. Contrarily, an undergraduate degree is an important experience that should give the holder a foundation to thrive for a decent period of time, without the crown of an instant graduate degree. The mass trend now is to study further, after spending valuable four to six years for an undergraduate course, as the key to jobs. Two things can be drawn from this reality. Students don’t get the kind of robust experience that is expected from an undergraduate education. Even among those graduates who do find employment, there has been widespread criticism by employers about what are perceived to be falling academic standards and lack of broader work skills and dispositions. For these, the blame is packaged on the doorsteps of education providers/universities. While universities can be blamed for falling academic standards, which essentially implicates government and regulatory agencies, broader work skills and dispositions are not their sole duties and they cannot achieve anything as long as they operate in a parallel universe from employers. Employers cannot wait for the right applicants to show up at their doorsteps, too. In the most effective interventions, employers and education providers work closely to design curricula; they may even participate in teaching directly, by providing instructors. This is where Andela (www.andela.com) belongs as a model.
The other side to this examination of responsibility is the disposition of the student (but I understand that this is a turtle on another turtle; we shall get to the turtle problem in a bit). As I said on my panel which discussed graduate employability in Sub Saharan Africa in the British Council’s Going Global 2015 conference in London, excelling in Nigerian undergraduate schools is basically up to the student: the student, aware of the unsmiling face of the labour market, has to commit to seeking out opportunities, going the extra mile in class- beyond what the lecturer gives, and securing internships, volunteer opportunities and work experiences that are relevant to life after school. Simply, if your system won’t help you to succeed, concentrate on pursuing success on your own. It is possibly because of this lack of trust and assurance in undergrad experience, which is a result of the system that they are themselves part of, that employers cannot trust basic degrees, rather preferring proof of further studies (especially foreign studies) which is believed to be some sort of assurance.
Fundamentally, however, gaining skills and relevant experiences to succeed in one’s chosen career does not begin when a young person gains admission into university. Wrongly, discussions narrow too deeply on universities, almost as if university experience/education can be disconnected (or can stand alone) from that of lower levels; even when it has been pointed out that their employment rates are not significantly different. So many young people enter university with no clue on what to expect and pursue (the logic going: they better be in anyways, for a chance!). To start work on them at this stage will be difficult. Practicable solutions and designs start to appear when the skills issue is viewed from the perspective of an historical institutionalist: constructing the whole picture rather than treating snapshots which won’t give comprehensive understanding. This is the turtle problem (the particular turtle picked as the starting point for a story is actually standing on the back of another turtle, or else an elephant or a tiger or a whale). But we can identify, in this case, the most relevant turtle that our explanations and solutions can begin from.
Closely following this is the ambiguity, as pointed out by a friend, which surrounds what the needed skills really are, especially when we emphasize skills at university level to young people who cannot relate it to past experiences. What really are communication skills, asked my friend, Faith Abiodun who teaches at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. What are leadership skills? What does it mean to have analytical thinking skills? What about adaptability? As long as we don’t go further to practically break down what these skills are and how they can be measured and assessed against global standards, but continue to publish them in really ambiguous terms in research reports and studies, these young people may not get it. It was hard enough for me teaching in a state polytechnic in the North Central part of Nigeria where the better numbers of questions my students asked in the middle of lectures were about breaking down my vocabulary; words like “endow”. How can they, then, understand what Bloomberg or anybody means by strategic thinking? Again, this is not to say that this is what obtains everywhere, but to allude to inclusiveness.
Additionally, organizing skills trainings- which last for two weeks, forty hours, and so on- will not solve these problems in any fundamental way if they are not provided in the context of an organized ‘life plan’. Young people will continue to approach these provisions the same way they approach formal education: study to pass and immerse yourself in it because you need the certificate; ‘la cram la pour’ (common expression in Nigerian universities translating loosely to ‘cram and pour’) that they seldom remember two weeks after examination.
In conclusion, without government’s intervention and collaboration, society will not be strengthened to implement this ‘life plan’, leaving good education and large opportunities to those who have the means to seek private education providers, who understand change and invest resources to create needed systems. This is why Asheshi University students in Ghana and many top private secondary schools’ graduates in Nigeria are distinguished. But again, it is obvious that not all private education providers can justify the huge profits they make in terms of the success of the students. Designing a system that works, on the long run, has to target young people in secondary, tertiary and even post-tertiary groups and feed off the collaboration of young people, education providers and employers.