22 Nov, 2021

Is tertiary education still worth it? Let’s unravel this puzzle together

Ahead of the RewirEd Summit, Dr Lucy Heady, Chief Executive Officer at Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) shares her thoughts on the value of tertiary education and ways to promote youth employment.

Student at UPSA

Many young people across Africa are losing faith in the value of education and their governments due to the high unemployment. Research by Education Sub Saharan Africa and Quilt.AI shows that frustration with job hunting and a perceived lack of action by politicians is risking the enormous potential of young people.

You might argue that the reality of high unemployment means that more education is a waste of time. Why bother studying for a job that doesn’t exist? The answer is not clear-cut. Research from the PwC network shows that 87% of African CEOs report difficulty finding employees with the right skills.

This mismatch occurs because too often, employers and educators live in parallel worlds, without communication or understanding. But when these worlds can be made to cross paths, to find points of alignment, the results are extraordinary. The World Bank Research shows that university and college education has the highest return across the education system.

An effective tertiary education system can ensure young people have the skills for today’s economy. Similarly, it can also look to the future, producing graduates that can drive home-grown innovation and attract foreign investment. At ESSA, we are deliberate in creating collaborative solutions that will realise this promise.

On December 12th, world education leaders will gather in Dubai to discuss Youth, Skills and the Future of Work. The hosts of the Summit, Dubai Cares with Expo 2020 Dubai, will raise the profile of education as critical to addressing African and global development priorities. ESSA will be using the RewirEd Summit as an opportunity to join up the worlds of policymakers, educators, employers and students. A provocative panel debate will bring together these different perspectives to ask whether tertiary is still worth it amid the unemployment crisis.

ESSA believe that universities and colleges can harness the potential of the next generation, but that radical change is needed to bring their world into meaningful contact with the world of employers. Policymakers face a daunting task in pushing for this change: evidence and data are scarce and without understanding the same critical facts about the system, we are all working in the dark. Educators do not know the demands of the job market and struggle to link with the industry. Employers cannot get graduates with employable skills. Similarly, students have little information on what skills employers want.

ESSA is researching to understand the needs of the faculty, skills in demand by local labour markets, and cost-effective ways of increasing access without compromising quality. Investment is needed in the generation of evidence and platforms where this research can be shared and understood by everyone, employers, educators, policy-makers and young people alike. This will drive those with the power to work together towards the most effective strategies for improving the quality of education for young people.

For example, universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa need evidence to provide more career support services for their students. Faculty need to know the demands of the modern job market and form links to industry. ESSA contributes to increasing the employability of graduates by working with Education Collaborative in Ghana and Kepler in Rwanda to partner with African universities to support them to develop their career services and industry engagement strategies.

Employers are also part of the process, contributing to, and being an audience for the research. Employers themselves can be a driving force in contributing to a shared understanding that could transform tertiary education. They can provide information on the skills they expect from graduates and deepen their relationships with universities and colleges. Information access will also help young people make the right choices and ease the transition from education to work. Understanding the challenges in the current labour market will also help young people be realistic in their ambitions for their first step outside of formal education.

As world education leaders convene at the RewirEd Summit to discuss the value of tertiary education, they must think creatively to solve the paradox of rising graduate unemployment at a time when advanced skills are increasingly in demand. They must step out of their own worlds and find partners in other worlds to agree on what is needed to help the world’s fastest-growing youth population.

As part of their commitments, these leaders need to revamp policies and bolster investments to enable universities and colleges to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of the education they provide for young people. The challenge is a big one. However, investing in evidence, data and collaboration will give us the best chance of success. 


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