HE Systems Are Out Of Sync With Africa’s Human Capital Needs

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The gap between Africa and the rest of the world in the development of job skills is widening and the challenge is that universities and other tertiary education institutions on the continent are not producing enough graduates with the knowledge and skills required by their regional economies, according to the Addis Ababa-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).

In a study, Human Capital and Productive Employment Creation: Addressing Africa’s skills gap, the ECA noted that the gross enrolment of students at tertiary institutions in Africa continues to be lower than in other regions and invariably differs widely across the countries in the continent.

The issue is that, despite progress towards improving access to higher education, most African countries have not caught up to the global average of tertiary education enrolment which currently stands at 35%. So far, only Mauritius, Algeria and Tunisia have attained that goal.

The study, published recently in collaboration with Oxford Economics Africa, noted that, whereas most African countries are below the global average, the median tertiary enrolment for Sub-Saharan Africa is only 8.6%. Oxford Economics Africa is a research think tank in South Africa that specialises in interpreting social and political issues and economic risks in Africa.

Education for the public sector

Researchers at the two organisations were concerned as to how the chosen fields of study in African higher education have failed to produce the knowledge and skills required by the various economies. Citing the North African experience, they noted that most higher education pathways target public-sector needs, while the knowledge and skills required by the private sector are neglected.

Subsequently, those shortcomings have resulted in the high unemployment rate of individuals with advanced education.

Said Dr Zuzana Schwidrowski, the director of the ECA’s office for North Africa: “For Africa, the most challenging shift pertains to the worldwide impact of the technological changes – such as artificial intelligence – on jobs, with potentially huge replacements of people by machines along the entire skills spectrum.”

In general, the report pointed out that the job opportunities of the future will require new skill sets such as digital skills and other allied fields which are lacking in quantity and quality in African tertiary institutions.

To overcome the problem, the ECA and Oxford Economics Africa urged governments in African countries to educate their people better for the changing world of work, as human capital and schooling are inseparable parts of skills development.

However, Africa’s inability to produce an educated workforce, according to the study, is embedded in low education attainment, as most countries on the continent have not caught up to the world median for mean years of schooling which currently stands at 8.9 years.

According to UNESCO, on average, the level of schooling in Africa in the past two decades increased only marginally from 3.9 years to 5.7 years.

Demographic dividend

The study warned that, unless the issues of quality education and skills development are attended to urgently, Africa could potentially squander its demographic dividend.

Commenting on the issue, Noelani King Conradie, the managing director of Oxford Economics Africa, said the situation could be either reversed or stay unchanged depending on the knowledge and skills that African higher education institutions will impart to their students.

In this regard, a key insight of the study is that governments across the continent should increase employment creation, not by simply committing more resources to higher education, but by taking a critical view of the types of skills each country will need.

The study also highlighted the mismatch of skills in African countries, a problem that arises when education and training do not match the jobs available, but also when skills become obsolete due to digitalisation and technological advancement. Poor coordination and regulation of training institutions were also cited as other aspects contributing to the mismatch of skills.

Lack of competitiveness

In effect, what is emerging is that African workers are increasingly becoming uncompetitive in the job market, both at home and in the diaspora. According to ECA, firms across the continent regularly report a lack of skilled workforce as a major constraint to their activities, while most African migrants in the diaspora are employed to do jobs for which they are overqualified.

Ideally, overqualification is interpreted as an occurrence whereby workers who have completed tertiary education are employed in low- or medium-skilled jobs. For example, in the United Kingdom, the average overqualification rate among Africans with university education stands at 33% in comparison with 27% of the general population of immigrants in that country, stated ECA.

Further, in the US, the underemployment rate among college-educated immigrants currently stands at 21%, compared with 16% in the overall population with the same level of education, a phenomenon that is being described as ‘brain waste’ for sending countries.

“On average, African immigrants to the US are better qualified than the native-born population and the variation has been rising every year,” says ECA.

What this means, says the report, is that Africa’s human capital development challenge is also being intensified by brain drain, taking into account that African emigrants are unequally well-educated and their emigration is a loss to the continent because of the skills they take with them.

Clarifying the issue further, ECA and Oxford Economics Africa highlighted the fact that, in the US, 40% of immigrants from Africa, excluding North Africa, hold a bachelor degree or higher compared with 32% of all foreign-born residents and relative to 34% of the overall population.

Still, in France, more than 25% of African immigrants have a tertiary qualification but, while that is lower than the numbers for all immigrants in France as well as for the general population, according to the two organisations, it is still a very respectable level of education.

Curriculum overhaul

But, for Africa to make progress in closing the skills gap, Schwidrowski said there is an urgent need for the continent to adapt to the new human capital development reality which is being driven by technological changes, remote working, digitalisation, and transition to green energy.

“The key policy challenge in the area of skill development for Africa is to support the new and emerging sectors that can drive inclusive and resilient growth,” said Schwidrowski.

Nevertheless, countering the magnitude of skills shortages, mismatches between skills demand and skills supply, as well as stopping the brain drain is complex and will not be easy, as most African countries have some ground to cover, warns the ECA.

“For instance, on the demand front, numerous survey findings suggest that an inadequately educated workforce is a major constraint to doing business in Africa,” stated the ECA.

To overcome the challenges, the ECA called for the introduction of a robust and forward-looking education curriculum on digital and entrepreneurial skills in African tertiary institutions, as those skills are now needed in a variety of job-creation sectors, from agriculture to industry.

The report emphasised that digital literacy is required in Africa, pointing out that the demand for digital skills in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya and South Africa currently exceeds the current supply.

Unfortunately, although digital skills are seen as a remedy for preparing students, graduates and various tertiary education professionals for the job market in Africa, on average fewer than 20% of households can afford to pay for the training of intermediate and higher digital skills.

The ECA said most African countries score poorly in terms of digital skills when compared with the rest of the world, a factor that contributes towards a growing skills mismatch, as employers on the continent struggle to find digitally skilled talent.

Quoting the International Finance Corporation’s report, Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa: Spotlight on Ghana, the ECA wondered how many jobs out of the 230 million jobs in the region that will require digital skills by 2030 will be filled by local people.

So far, it is hard to tell, taking into account that mastering the appropriate job market skills appears not to be a priority of most governments and universities in Africa, even when it is clear that an appropriately educated labour force could act as a catalyst for the creation of a sophisticated human capital resource.

University World News

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