13th General Conference of the Association of African Universities (AAU)

28 May 2013 to 31 May 2013
Gabonese Republic

Transforming African Higher Education for Graduate Employability and Socio-Economic Development

The connect between higher education and socio-economic development of any country is now unquestionable. Such a link is all the more relevant for Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which faces enormous development challenges. Higher education can contribute to development by producing graduates who have the requisite skills, who can produce and adapt knowledge innovatively and who can address human and social development challenges.

Student enrolment, and hence output of graduates, for SSA is known to be lower than any other world region. Yet, in spite of many constraints and challenges, higher education institutions (HEIs) in Africa have made enormous efforts to cater for the growing demand for higher education and have increased their enrolment significantly, in many cases by several folds over just one decade. These efforts will have to be sustained to enable African countries to move up along their development trajectory.

Increase in enrolment and consequently in output of graduates, however, must be cautiously planned, taking into account economic and social factors. At a time when much of the developed world is facing economic crisis, Africa is currently one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and this growth is expected to be maintained over the next few years. However, in almost all African countries unemployment is high. Statistics reveal that while Africa has the world’s youngest population, with great expectations for education, nearly 60% of those who are unemployed are youth between the ages of 15-24, and a significant number of these are graduates. This jobless growth is what African HEIs will have to take into consideration in planning their future expansion. The social and political consequences of large unemployment can be grave, as evidenced by what is now known as the ‘Arab spring’. Indeed, two important factors that triggered the explosive unrest in Tunisia, which was followed in other parts of the Arab world, were high proportions of young people and high unemployment among the educated youth.

It is therefore clear that merely increasing enrolment and output of graduates will not be sufficient for a positive impact on development; it must be ensured that the graduates are productively employed or can be self-employed to generate further employment. At a time when enormous efforts are being made to revitalise higher education in Africa, graduate employment and employability – two closely related but not synonymous terms – are important elements that must be factored in.

For any HEI the factors affecting graduate employment and employability can perhaps be grouped into three categories: first, exogenous factors related to the absorptive capacity of the country for graduates, which has an impact on graduate employment; second, endogenous factors associated to the institution’s efforts in ensuring the well-preparedness of the graduates, which determines their employability; and third, factors linking the exogenous and endogenous factors, in other words linking employment and employability.