Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Graduate employability and higher education responsiveness: The debate rages

The drums of change are sounding louder and louder as the conversation on the job readiness of university graduates becomes heated in the face of increasing youth joblessness fueled partly by doubts on the quality and employability of most graduates from some universities.

As the drums get louder there are resounding calls for tertiary institutions to up their game but this is igniting a war of resistance from some sections of public universities who embrace contemptuous attitudes towards the vocational orientation of some newer entrants to the tertiary education space.

The ensuing debate is shining light on the quality of graduates produced by different tertiary institutions. The debates is not unique to Botswana and reflects a world-wide phenomenon where  questions are being asked about the usefulness of universities in delivering job ready graduates who fit the competency profiles of entry levels jobs and are able to navigate the dynamics of changing work and workplaces.

No university can be an exception to the need to change to adapt to globalization, modern technology, changing demographics and calls for accountability in delivering quality graduates who fit the strategic needs of industry and economic agenda of nations. The shifting landscape is the new reality characterized by emphasis on graduates who don’t just have theoretical knowledge but have practical competencies and are able to competently and professionally apply what they have learned to contribute to value creation in organisations.

With the external landscape having experienced transformation it no longer holds water to embrace the status quo bias borne out of distorted perceptions of what a modern university should be and how it should plan, deliver and assess learning.

The new private talent suppliers that have emerged to share the space hitherto monopolized by public tertiary institutions has led some of these traditional sources to slide into political posturing to preserve historical positions in the face of a shifting landscape in which new forces are at play. Some of the new players offer vocationally oriented programmes that deliver practical skills and have shifted the forces of talent demand away from traditional academic pathways.

The paradox of tertiary institutions, especially traditional public universities is with abating the problem or aiding its resolution at a period when more young people from generation X (1970s and early 80s), have graduated from tertiary institutions more than those of the baby boomer generation before them. The world is already experiencing an even more educated generation Y born the 1980s and 1990s and without strategic interventions at government, institutional, sectoral, employer and even individual graduate level, generation Y faces more spooky challenges when it comes to employability and employment.

The purpose of higher education has always been and will always be to prepare students to live fuller, more fulfilled and more meaningful lives and especially for the world of work. But as observed by Sir Ken Robinson the current system of education was trapped in 18th century thinking and thus designed, conceived and structured for a different age, the problem being that institutions were trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past. Although this was made with reference to the school system in the UK, it is equally true of public tertiary institutions in Botswana.

Although occupying a significant place, private tertiary institutions in Botswana are however far from becoming the dominant force of supply for the talent needed by the economy and by industry. The country’s national university ÔÇô University of Botswana (UB) which has been the pride of the nation as the source of talent supply since independence continues to feed the pools and inject the pipelines irrigating diverse industries and sectors.

The University continues to supply chemists, medical doctors, economists, environmental health professionals, environmental scientists, historians, ICT practitioners, lawyers, linguists, media practitioners, microbiologists, nurses, psychologists, social scientists, statisticians, teachers, business management professionals and other graduates. Graduates in these fields have over several decades, filled gaps in supply and constituted the core capacity of many sectors of the economy.

Several scholars around the world, including some from Botswana such as Molefhe, K. and Pheko, M. (2016); Munganidze, Raimau and Tapera, R. (2016); Rudhumba, Makambe, Maki and Ndlovu and Oma, N (2008) have offered their perspectives on the need for all stakeholders (graduate, employer, institutions, policy makers and human capital professionals) to reassess their individual and collaborative contribution to graduate quality.

The views of these different scholars concur with the criteria used to rank universities according to the employability of their graduates. The criteria gauges the reputation of the organizations  employing graduates from different universities; the outcomes, impacts or influence of alumni on industry or sector or nation or globally; the collaboration the universities had with employers per faculty; the interactions between employers and students that are fostered by the University  and of course the rate of absorption of graduates into jobs.

It should be noted that newer tertiary institutions have embraced the requirement for demand driven learning programmes that address skills shortages in the economy and meet the needs of employers. The same requirements is not being enthusiastically embraced by traditional public institutions even though it is articulated in the national Human Resource Development Strategy and other public developmental agenda.

By defining job entry competency requirements which exclude multitudes of cohorts of fresh graduates who lack certain competencies, employers too are defining their requirements for tertiary institutions to deliver graduates who can effectively fit job and workplace cultural profiles.

The quality of graduates is the outcome of learning programmes that are demand driven and which have a clearly articulated quality framework with clearly defined learning outcomes, delivery modes and assessment criteria. Better higher education systems mean a difference from the past and this requires change which cannot happen without the tertiary institution changing.

The modern university must be market oriented and competitive, including having better leadership, positive work and learning environments, closer collaboration with industry and adherence to quality standards set by regulatory bodies. The modern university should rediscover its rationale and reground as the nucleus of individual, community, national and global social and economic interests by committing to enhancing the learner’s experience and increasing engagement with employers and with professional bodies.

Following years of guzzling volumes of national resources and an insatiable appetite for more investments fueled by an entitlement attitude, the traditional public university, with some of its younger private compatriots, continues to pump graduates in their thousands into overflowing pools and clogged pipelines

For many the hope of higher education as the gateway to employment has long faded whilst for others the vision of using tertiary education certificates as passports to earning a living is blaring as job openings in traditional employer destinations shrink. The historical challenge of supply-side focus has been replaced by demand-side competitiveness for job-ready graduate employees who can hit the ground running.

Left unattended the hangover experienced by traditional public tertiary institutions is likely to progress from temporary fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness, shakiness, mood swings and increased heartbeat to serious complications of diminished cognitive and related challenges. The time is now for all stakeholders to move out of comfort zones, stop complacency and embrace change so that universities could be the source of the talent that drives creativity and innovation in industry and the economy.

Tertiary institutions must get beyond this comfort with what is familiar as it prevents them from cultivating graduates who can be successful in the new economy, who don’t just prove the knowledge of figures and facts but can demonstrate the right attitudes for the application of skills or capabilities from learning in Universities.

Historically albeit post-independence, the tertiary sector which has been dominated by public institutions produced students for existing jobs in the public sector where they were to follow orders, listen and obey rather than demonstrate any decisiveness and come up with initiatives which show creativity and innovation.

Current employers don’t just want people who are merely loyal and hardworking but are adaptable and proactive – employees who are emotionally competent, think outside the box and can communicate effectively at work, in the community, nationally and even globally, including having the ability to build value adding relationships and collaborate in pursuit of common agenda.

Employers should brand and market themselves and go digital, define competencies for potential and for performance, and strengthen relationships with professional bodies and with tertiary institutions.

Individual graduates have to play an activist role in the transition from education to work to enhance with market worth whilst demonstrating beyond doubt their measurable value including their potential for career growth and to remain relevant and employable in the ever transforming world of work and the economy. They need to create positive professional trajectories for themselves and have a clear understanding of the requirements for enhanced potential for both vertical and horizontal career mobility, including knowing how to move into specific sectors or industries.

Graduates need meaningful career advice from pre-tertiary enrollment to the post-tertiary stages to increase their employability especially their person-job fit which is essential for career growth and job meaningfulness. The need for self-awareness, including awareness of the competencies they possess and how they align to different career paths is critically important for today’s graduate.

The experience gap  as reflected in job advertisement requirements for entry level jobs imply that  most graduates cannot immediately match employer requirements and have to engage in activities that give them practice work experience which would convince employers that they could hit the ground running if employed.

Dan Pink once said “In many professions what used to matter most were abilities associated with the left side of the brain, linear, sequential, spreadsheet kind of faculties. Those still matter, but they’re not enough. What’s important now are the characteristics of the brain’s right side: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking.”

Whilst universities are responsible for the quality of their programmes and whether they produce job ready or unemployable graduates, the individual graduate is partly responsible for their own future basic competencies for getting, keeping and doing well in a job. They should make informed career choices throughout their lives.

Some of the academic competencies, higher order thinking skills and personal attributes that graduate should have and which universities could help to develop to make graduate job ready and employable include the following:

  • Critical/analytical thinking
  • Decision making/ problem solving
  • Self-management
  • Engagement and work ethic
  • Team working and interpersonal skills
  • Ethics and accountability
  • Flexibility and willingness to learn
  • Results orientation and passion for excellence
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Assertiveness and personal credibilityLeadership

Job readiness is the key linking graduates to jobs and the economy ÔÇô the stepping stone to successful careers, livelihoods, poverty eradication and sustainable development. It enables graduates to thrive in the 21st century and to be productive value adding members of their communities and to maintain health psycho-social and emotional wellbeing.

This article was contributed by Jowitt Mbongwe who is Managing Director of Global Consult. He can be reached at 3935757, [email protected]

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