In Uganda, attainment of a university degree is the dream of every parent for their children.
Indeed, every young person seeking to progress in life dreams of the day they will graduate from the university. This dream is well-known and has seen the number of universities in recent years grow.
As of today, there are more than 40, with some being a result of elevating institutions of higher learning to university status. These churn out many graduates annually.
Such is the case not only in Uganda but most of Africa.
Growth in education levels
Public expenditure on education in the continent has increased about sevenfold in the last 30 years. More African children go to school today than it has ever been in the past and World Bank reports that primary school completion rates have more than doubled while completion of lower secondary school has increased five-fold, in the recent past.
These are impressive statistical indicators for Africa. By 2030, the continent’s working-age population is set to be 600 million, having risen from about 370 million in 2010. The proportion of the population with at least secondary education is set to reach 52 per cent in 2030. It was 36 per cent in 2010.
Up to 20 million well-educated people are expected to join the workforce every year in the period up to 2030. The continent, though, still continues to have the least skilled workforce in the world.
Also, according to the World Economic Forum, Sub-Saharan Africa’s Human Capital Index was only 55 per cent of its human capital potential, compared to a global average of 65 per cent, by 2017 – implying that the contribution of education and health to the productivity of next generation workers is lowest for Africa.
Back home in Uganda, the numbers speak for themselves. Four years ago, about 400,000 people were reported to be graduating each year from the different public and private universities. However, according to the Uganda Investment Authority, only 150,000 jobs were being created annually which would leave about 350,000 of them looking for work every passing year. The rate of unemployment therefore remains a challenge.
The white-collar problem
Part of the problem is that our universities generally prepare students for white-collar jobs or careers, after university.
So even as university graduates grow in number, employers still struggle to get skilled workers who can offer required services, especially in technical specialties. Even if presented with opportunities to pursue technical courses at lower levels, many students, with support of their parents and caretakers, would still opt to try and attain university degrees. They will then hold onto hope that they will turn out lucky and get a graduate’s job after completing their courses.
The truth is however, there is no need to cling onto this path. In any case, as an example, a student who graduates and takes a job as a banker may start off at no better financial prospects than their counterpart who qualifies in bricklaying and masonry. Worse still, the former is most likely going to have the disadvantage of trying to maintain a higher life standard which is not supported by their financial earnings just after school.
Sadly, our current education system is likely to condition students to aspire to join such white-collar professions and earn Shs700,000 per month than take up alternative occupations even if such occupations would give them a comparative Shs1m per month after school, in earnings.
The education system is unfairly tilted towards bequeathing prestige and uplifting images of both students and their families and therefore choices will always be made in favour of university degrees even if chances of them resulting in employment are dismal.
For many, these prestige leaning aspirations overshadow the prevailing realities of finding work later in life. After all, investment in higher education is continuing to support this trend by focusing on providing more universities to produce more degrees which are tailored around producing clerks, teachers, lawyers and other white-collar professionals.
Change in mindset
We need to take up initiatives that will change the mindsets of especially the young population to appreciate that formal education does not have to necessarily conclude with university graduation to make meaning.
Both parents and leaders need to guide children to disengage from the mentality that without attaining a degree, there are no chances of a successful post-school career. Government and private investors in education should also accordingly align their investments with current national needs.
Priorities for skills are no longer in line with the colonial education system which was mainly tuned towards producing administrators and other closely related specialties.
There is a need to generally assess the suitability of the output of the education system to the skills gaps prevailing today. This is true for Uganda, as it is for the rest of Africa.
However, Uganda with a very young population, and one that is growing faster than for most of her peer countries, faces more acute exposures to consequences of skills gaps and resulting youth unemployment. The country therefore needs to act fast.
Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant