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Sunday, July 20, 2014

East Africa’s universities are underachieving

Debate about the merits of regional integration often degenerates into harebrained and vain nationalistic preening. But here is what these nationalist bigots must know. On average 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market.

In short, 56 percent of our graduates are half-baked. This sobering finding was revealed May 2014 in a study conducted by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) to establish employers’ perceptions of graduates.

At least 63 percent of graduates from Ugandan universities lack job market skills. In Tanzania 61 percent of graduates were unsuitable for the job market. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55 percent and 52 percent of graduates respectively were perceived to be incompetent. In Kenya, 51 percent of graduates were believed to be unemployable.

About a decade ago I sat in an interview panel to recruit a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) analyst. One candidate stood out. He had graduated with a first class honors degree. His transcript was stupendous. For the panel, he was the candidate to watch. The panel dubbed him the “A” candidate. In the pre-interview rating the position was his to lose.

In just five short minutes it was clear that the “A” candidate would not get the job. He could not speak with clarity. The “A” candidate had no capacity for problem solving, or complex reasoning. The “A” candidate could not analyze a simple practical non-technical problem, which required application of knowledge. But he was at his best when asked to define things. To say that there was a disjunction between the transcripts and the candidate is euphemistic. A majority of students graduating from our universities do not posses higher-order cognitive skills, which college students are widely assumed to have.

For all the public resources we pump into them, East Africa’s colleges and universities accomplish far too little for our children. The trouble is that the universities don’t even think there is a problem. In the IUCEA and EABC study, 82 percent of higher institutions interviewed maintained that graduates were adequately prepared for the job market.

That universities believe they are doing stellar job in preparing graduates for the workplace is hardly surprising. It reflects how out of touch the academy is from society. It reaffirms the need for deep and fundamental reform in the purpose and function of the university in the 21st century.

There is a fundamental problem of limited learning leading to low quality of graduates from our universities, caused by many factors such as quality of high school education, quality the professoriate, relevance of undergraduate curriculum, and the quality of educational facilities in our university, including labs, libraries etc. 
Given the preponderance of rote learning in our high schools most students enter university without high-order critical thinking and complex reasoning skills. Our obsession with high-test scores in national exams prevents teachers and students from focusing on the true mission education: a commitment to a life of the mind and a love of life long learning.

There is evidence that academically rigorous approaches to teaching and learning are associated with enhanced performance on tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, oral and written communication. Transforming higher education to focus on learning will need changing students’ experience; from the requirements of course work to faculty engagement and feedback. Learning and academic achievement must be the central focus of undergraduate education. Students must be engaged actively in the learning process, through experimentation, application and working in teams. We must demand more from students and professors.

We must develop a culture of accountability in our universities. Without resorting to externally imposed accountability systems universities should be encouraged to develop specific and clear goals for student learning and to collect objective, and verifiable data about how students are achieving their learning goals, across all undergraduate programs. Ideally, the results of such self-assessment should be made available to prospective students and their parents.

A steady path to regional integration demands a modern railway network, reliable energy, robust trade and secure borders. However, a prosperous people-centered region depends, ultimately, on innovators and entrepreneurs who create good jobs and stable incomes, which rely on a sizable college educated middle class produced by world-class universities. We must reform higher education and provide the necessary incentives to encourage constructive reform in our underachieving universities. 

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