Creative Commons

Monday, October 17, 2016

What is the purpose of university education?

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) global youth unemployment rate is on the rise. The deterioration of employment prospects for youth is expected to be worse in developing countries where official unemployment figures understate the severity of youth labor market challenges. Moreover, the informal sector, which creates about 90% of new jobs, does not pay young people enough to lift themselves out of poverty.

A survey commissioned by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University in 2014/15 revealed that 1 in 2 students who graduated from East African universities were unemployed. This is hardly surprising. A survey commissioned by the East Africa Business Council and the Inter-University Council of East Africa showed that about 53 percent of East Africa’s graduates were not employable. Moreover, Africa’s stellar GDP growth has not produced commensurate jobs for the youth.

It is understandable that universities are under pressure to prove their relevance by producing graduates who are work ready. Similarly governments are under pressure to provide the right incentives to address the structural imbalances in the economy, which stifle equitable growth and job creation.  This blistering summer of Africa’s jobless growth must come to an end.

On the role of universities, to what extent should curricular be aligned to industry needs? Is it the role of university just produce to work-ready graduates? What really is the public purpose of higher education? What should be the attributes or unique qualities of a university-educated individual?

There must be a higher public purpose for investing in higher education. That purpose is certainly more than training technically competent automatons. Non-degree granting institutions such as polytechnics should produce all kinds of technicians; accountants, plumbers, chefs, pilots and masons.

Yes, it is important and desirable that young people graduating from our universities have skills and able to find or create work and earn and income, live fulfilling lives and contribute to their societies. And there is no doubt that Africa needs more university-educated citizens, especially given the current unemployment crisis and the myriad challenges we face now and in the future.

It is difficult to contemplate the role of university in this century without thinking about leadership – visionary and ethical leadership. There is no doubt that the next generation will face challenges far more complex and dire than those we are grappling with today. Leadership in the 21st century and beyond will require complex, convergent thinking that transcends disciplines, analytical and moral reasoning and cultural intelligence.

African universities must educate a generation of citizens that can think, create, innovate and solve problems. While there is no universal agreement on what a university graduate should look like, there is emerging consensus that the supreme purpose of universities is to raise a generation of T-type individuals, who have unassailable cross-disciplinary depth crowned by expansive, connective and integrative breadth. 

We must resist the temptation to proliferate universities and flood labor markets with half-decent graduates. Universities must not be vocational factories, which produce unthinking automatons. East Africa deserves better.

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