TOO MUCH UNDONE WORK, TOO MANY JOBLESS GRADUATES: Curbing Graduate Unemployment in Uganda
It is rare for me to write about development without bringing into the picture Uganda’s [Africa’s] paradox of poverty amidst plenty. This contradiction is constituted by many other sub-paradoxes, and one of them is that of millions of jobless graduates amidst millions of undone jobs. Of course, behind this paradox is a combination of factors. Most of these factors are systemic and beyond the control of the graduates themselves. Yes, it is true that individuals can take personal initiative to create remedies at a personal level. And most of my literary works are known for empowering individuals with practical insights to do this. However, I also know that this can only work for a few individuals. But if you want sustainable mass scale results you have to transform the system itself. In this post, I would like to identify some of the systemic aspects that contribute to the paradox of graduate joblessness amidst millions of jobs waiting to be done. My ultimate objective is to highlight the hotspots that require urgent and radical change in order to achieve the desired transformation. My view is that we won’t be able to change the results we are getting from higher education without duly changing these areas.
First, and most important, the core problem is absence of a well aligned philosophy of higher education. Formal education is not neutral. The core business of education is mental programming. It is the tool by which a society propagates its shared consciousness, culture and aspirations. So, a congruent philosophy of higher education is constructed in response to such questions as: What kind of society do we want to create? What role do we want graduates of higher education to play? Therefore, what kind of people should higher education institutions be passing out? By implication, then, what should be our approach to higher education? I have worked closely in the field of Uganda’s higher education for the last 20 years as a classroom teacher, as a consultant and as a policy maker in the top-most boardrooms of universities. I know for a fact that as a country, we do not have a well-articulated, let alone shared philosophy of higher education. Even at the regulatory level, quality assurance is done on mechanical indicators, leaving the foundational element of educational philosophy unregulated. This is where the whole litany of problems starts. In my view, all the other issues associated with the graduate unemployment crisis emanate from this one. Below we discuss them one by one;
The Inverted Structure of Higher Education.
The latest tertiary enrollment statistics used in the latest Uganda Statistical Abstract (UBoS, 2019) is that of 2016. So I will indicatively use that to explain this point. According to this source, student enrolment at tertiary level was 201,376 in 2013. Out of these, 140,403 (69.7%) were enrolled in universities. By 2016 tertiary enrolment had increased to 258,866 students, 184,412 (72%) of whom were enrolled in universities. Only 28% were enrolled in other tertiary institutions. The situation has not changed that much.
These statistics reflect a fundamental problem responsible for the ever growing graduate unemployment crisis – the inverted enrolment structure. Perhaps with the exception of Busitema University (to a certain extent), none of Uganda’s over 50 universities is a technical university. They are all academic universities. In essence, academic universities are designed to groom and produce theoreticians. Theoreticians are a critical genre of professionals as they form the building blocks for a country’s pool of researchers, inventors and innovators – the think tanks. But in principle, theoreticians should constitute a very small minority of the country’s educated workforce. Majority should be those equipped with hands-on production skills acquired in Business, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) institutions, including technical universities.
So, the fact that academic universities account for a whopping 72% of total tertiary enrolment means that on the one hand, industry suffers an acute lack of the hands-on workforce. At the same time it means that university graduates will overly float in the labor market. Like in many parts of the world, the ‘university epidemic’ has engulfed Uganda’s social psyche. As a rule, enrolling in university seems the prized target of every family. But this is a misguided craze that has led to severe graduate unemployment. To make matters worse, the problem has been misdiagnosed, resulting into a miss-prescription that is also likely to generate a series of other problems. In a rather panicky response to the growing accusations for producing “unskilled” graduates, many universities are beginning to succumb to the pressure to vocationalize their curricula. They are using a fundamental error to correct another fundamental error. Academic universities are necessary and should not be diluted by vocationalizing them. To solve the first fundamental error, tertiary enrollment should be reversed: about only 30-40% should enroll into academic universities. The rest should enroll in BTVET institutions. Among other things, this means that BTVET institutions should be well equipped and appropriately staffed to make them attractive. The truth is, the tradable knowledge and skills that most young people need to be functionally productive in the labor market can only be got in BTVET institutions rather than academic universities. I personally think Uganda already has too many unfocused academic universities. We need to preserve a few of them and consolidate them into solid academic universities. Then, convert others into technical universities on top of creating many more new technical universities across the country.
Absence of Authentic Orientation and Career Guidance.
For most higher education students, failure begins from the start. At the national level, there is a huge vacuum in the area of career guidance. In secondary schools the skewed attempts are limited to what I call “combination guidance”. Secondly, almost all institutions of higher learning do not have a functional careers department to provide in-depth career guidance services from choices of courses through to graduation and work entry strategies. Similarly, there is no proper orientation to the transition from secondary schools to higher education. Because of this, most higher education students are ill-prepared and will miss out on lots of informal and non-formal opportunities available for personal development and strategic career positioning. One of the key things students should be thoroughly oriented in is the discipline of learning how to learn. With this they can harness the wealth of opportunities which remain invisible to majority of students throughout their higher education tenure. One of the key questions is whether in the first place, institutions have the required resource persons and institutional systems to provide this kind of service.
Wrong Mindset and Misplaced Expectations.
This is closely connected with the orientation and career guidance omission discussed above. Most tertiary students tend to develop an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance. Misguided societal beliefs will have taught them to obviously expect a well-paying job upon graduation by virtue of their academic qualifications, regardless of their productivity. In fact, by the time they graduate, university students will have learned to despise practical manual jobs and hard work as a preserve of the less schooled lot. They will have an inflated value of what they know. Yet, due to a combination of other factors, they will be highly deficient for the white color jobs that they take to be an entitlement. They will severely lack in aspects like personal initiative, teamwork, resilience, patience, organizational abilities, and the various aspects of communication capabilities. We need the right approach to higher education, which can help to correct and redirect this wrong mindset and misplaced expectations.
Studying for Jobs Instead of Learning to Create Value
Higher education curricula are designed against an obsolete model of compartmentalized disciplines as though they were independent silos. Worse still, as if being pin-hole curricula is not bad enough, they are largely taught in isolation. Content for degree, diploma and certificate programmes is lined up as a combination of what educators perceive to be related course units. This combination is then considered as the requirement for one to qualify as a professional in a given field. It is thus assumed that as long as you have consumed the menu in this combination then you are a ready product. In effect, the important thing is for you to study and pass the exams within the course menu. The resultant certificate is evidence that you are a qualified accountant, lawyer, engineer, teacher, doctor, marketer etc. Therefore, you can use your credentials to find a job in the sector. But what happens when the jobs you studied for are not there? Of course, frustration and associated ills crop in.
On the other hand, 21st century realities dictate that students in higher education should be learning to create value rather than study for jobs. This twist in the philosophy of higher education has big implications for how curricula are designed and taught, as well as how students are assessed and certified. Very importantly, it makes a huge difference on graduate outcomes. The ideal model of curricula would be interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. They would leave students with ample latitude at personal level to blend subjects in a manner that enables them to figure out points at which their knowledge and skills intersect to create great value. At the end of the day, what is most important is not the professional title one carries [lawyer, teacher, engineer] but rather what value they can create. People should be admitted into university and allowed room to choose what they want to study in the combination that makes sense to their personal career vision [For example, a fine artist could be officially allowed to take courses in human anatomy, software development, robotics, marketing, accounting, artificial intelligence, entrepreneurship, motion graphics and animation, philosophy, economics, psychology, education, etc.] From a conventional perspective, this is a disconnected combination of subjects. But from a 21st century stance, such a graduate can build a high-end business career as a graphic animation artist specializing in health promotion and educational materials. Again, learning how to learn is key here.
Simply put, pedagogy refers to the combination of the educational philosophy and methods applied in the execution of learning programmes. This is perhaps the most important determinant of graduate employability and other graduate outcomes. Unfortunately, the dominant pedagogical regime in Uganda’s higher education institutions is a major part of the problem itself. It is teacher-centered and content-oriented, characterized by teachers who teach about things (subject content) rather than educating the person. Inevitably, this pedagogical dispensation produces graduates who are excellent examination passers but who lack the capabilities required to be functionally productive in real life.
The core business of education is mental programming. It’s about shaping mindsets, knowledgesets and skillsets. All these are neuro-functions. Pedagogy is concerned with the execution of deliberately calculated teaching and learning strategies in order to create the desired graduate outcomes. This renders pedagogy both a sophisticated science and an intricate art. Because of this, functional knowledge of how the human brain learns [works] should be a basic requirement for all educators. In practice however, most people playing the educator role in higher education are clueless on matters regarding basic cognitive neuroscience. So they remain clueless about the effect and impact of their modes of interaction with students on the latter’s mental programming. Most of the disempowering mindsets, as well as the misalignment of knowledge and skills among graduates can be traced in HOW they were taught rather than WHAT they were taught – the pedagogical fault-lines. Yet the perpetrators turn out to be “innocent” culprits.
There is only one solution – reskill and retool all educators with experiential learner-centered teaching capabilities. There is no shortcut to this. They all need to have enough intellectual humility to admit that they have always done things the wrong way and to realize the magnitude of the damage they have innocently caused. You cannot produce empowered creative thinkers and default job creators without making learner-centered pedagogy the default learning path.
Misalignment between Higher Education and Industry
This misalignment is more a result of the wrong pedagogy we have discussed above. While on the one hand industry is increasingly complaining of scarcity of skilled workers, higher education graduates are on the other hand increasingly complaining of lack of employment opportunities. Both the philosophical foundation of curricula and the teaching strategies employed are largely limited to classroom-based theory with little blend of field experience. However, this disconnect between school and industry will be sorted in the process of correcting the pedagogy regime.
Despite the various programmes focused on solving the graduate unemployment problem, it still persists. A major part of the reason is the fact that these interventions are planned and implemented in a compartmentalized manner, yet each of them only deals with partial dimensions of the problem. For example, the Youth Livelihood Programme (YLP) seems premised on the assumption that access to financial capital is the main thing needed to stimulate and spur youth employment through entrepreneurship. But recent developments have shown that many youth who received the YLP funds are on the run as their groups have defaulted on loan repayment. On the other hand, there are a couple of programmes that focus on the non-financial interventions. Universities and other tertiary institutions are also trying to fix the problem through their own interventions. These too are not adequate on their own. What is needed is a framework that harmonizes all these interventions in a manner that yields a synergy effect on accelerating graduate employment.
In 2010 I developed the 6-Pump Capital model and published it in 2016 under the title Demystifying Capital. This complex capital model could help in reducing the compartmentalization of interventions and accelerate graduate employment. In the 6-Pump Capital model I argue that capital is in 6 forms, and in order of sequence, Financial Capital is in the last (sixth) position. Intellectual Capital is in the first position; Spiritual Capital in second position; Social Capital in third position; Time Capital in fourth position; and Physical Capital in the fifth position. The point here is that graduate employment interventions must be harmonized to ensure that the target population is comprehensively empowered in all the six dimensions of capital. For example, I recently posted an article on my Facebook page talking about a young lady who I helped to start her Pizza business based at Makerere University Food Science Business Incubation Center. All I did was to simply loop her to tap into my social capital. What she needed most was not financial support but information about the existence of the incubation center, where she could get free services because it is funded by Government of Uganda, and connection to some of my networks as her first customers. Sometimes what the youth need is exposure, connections, or the capacity for resilience built on a clear sense of purpose, or the ability to utilize time optimally or the capacity to start with the little physical capital at their disposal. Only a comprehensive intervention can be able to cater for this variety of capital requirements and effectively yield sustainable results.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that life-threatening emergencies call for radical life-saving responses. The disastrous effects of the rising rate of graduate unemployment may not be as dramatic as COVID-19 but its long-run impact may not be much different. The difference lies in how we perceive it. In the face of COVID-19, even the most libertarian societies like UK and USA have had to resort to dictatorial measures in the best interest of the common good. For example, in the case of UK, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson directed, “Stay home. If you don’t follow the rules, the police will enforce them, including dispersing gatherings by force…” And in a rather apologetic tone, he hastily qualified his directive with as statement confirming that he was forced by circumstances to make the unpopular stance: “No Prime Minister would like to issue directives like these, but…”
Similarly, we will never be able to solve the graduate unemployment crisis without taking such radical, unpopular, disruptive measures as those world leaders are taking in the face of COVID-19. To nip graduate unemployment in the bud we have to courageously execute some measures that will fundamentally reverse: the absence of a well aligned philosophy of higher education; the absence of authentic orientation and career guidance; the wrong mindset and misplaced expectations; studying for jobs instead of learning to create value; the inverted structure of higher education; the wrong pedagogical regime; the misalignment between higher education and industry; and the compartmentalized programmes. The graduate unemployment problem is already too big and will soon start to grow exponentially. The response must be radical, transformational and immediate, just like in the case of COVID-19.
ACCESS FREE COPY OF AMBROSE KIBUUKA’S BOOK; AFTER UNIVERSITY, WHAT NEXT?
Under the auspices of the Institute of Advanced Leadership–Uganda, I have decided to avail contents of my book After University, What Next? for free public access online. This decision was based on the overwhelming feedback I am getting from readers of the book in over 20 countries for the last 17 years it has been in circulation. This far, I am convinced that if every student read this book before starting their higher education, they would make the most appropriate life choices and live optimal lives. I would therefore like to make After University, What Next? available for universal access to students and educators. We shall be availing the contents in series as links in my bi-monthly blog posts. In this maiden release we are providing the (click) INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK as well as the section titled (click) SURVIVERS AND THRIVERS. Thereafter, the subsequent ten (10) releases will be extracts from the flagship chapter of the 3rd Edition – UNDERSTANDING 21st CENTURY CAREERS. In the chapter I discuss 10 attributes of 21st century careers and each release will focus on one of those ten attributes.
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Ambrose Kibuuka Mukiibi is a specialist in Human Performance Systems – the art and science of bringing out the best in people. He is a Careers and Education consultant with over 20 years of practice in the field of higher education as a university teacher, pedagogy specialist and policy maker in top-most boardrooms of universities. He is author of 5 groundbreaking books including: After University, What Next? (First published in 2003, 2nd Edition in 2008, and 3rd Edition in 2018); Remaking the Youth (2000); Teaching Deep without Teaching Hard (2020); Demystifying Capital (2017); and Super Charging Youth Employability Value (2016). He is occasionally hosted on radio and television talk shows.
Since the year 2001 Ambrose Kibuuka has worked with a wide range of local and international organizations covering over 100 consultancies in the areas of: Career Guidance and Mentorship; Learner-Centered Pedagogy; Quality Assurance; Youth Empowerment and Entrepreneurship; Personal Development; Organizational Development; Creativity, Innovation and Change Management; Strategic Management; Transformational Leadership; and People Performance. Ambrose Kibuuka Mukiibi is a member of the Board of Trustees and the University Council at Kampala International University; a member of the Board of Directors and Innovation Strategist at the Institute of Advanced Leadership-Uganda; a member of the Board of Directors at the Public Policy Institute; a member of the Board of Directors at ACORD Uganda; and President of Uganda Martyrs University Alumni Association.