Monday 01 June 2015

The role and views of students must be central in any reforms that attempt to revitalise African universities, new British Council research concludes.

A clear finding from the survey is that for universities to be able to play a significant role in the continent’s social and economic progress, African institutions should not view students just as consumers, providing ‘value-for-money’ products that will be attractive to the market, but should include them as primary stakeholders in the collective task of ensuring a rich and relevant learning environment.

The findings represent the second published report of a three year research project ‘Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development’ (2013-2016), commissioned by the British Council and being led by a research team at the UK’s University College London Institute of Education. Focusing on Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and the UK for comparative purposes, the project explores the role of higher education in fostering employability and developing just and prosperous societies.

The report will be launched and discussed by a panel of students from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK at ‘Going Global’, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education, in London on June 1.

Tony Reilly, the British Council’s Director in Kenya, said: “Higher education is becoming increasingly important in the context of the knowledge society, and governments and development agencies alike are showing greater recognition of higher education’s critical contribution to development in the post-2015 agenda. However, if Africa is to harness the enormous potential of its burgeoning next generation and reap a demographic dividend out of its youth populations, the issue of graduate employability needs to be first understood and then tackled head on.

“Given the significant lack of rigorous research in the four countries in question, it was essential to develop a strong evidence base on the subject as a means of informing national policies, institutional reform and programme interventions. We hope the findings of our research will help UK universities to build sustainable partnerships with their Higher Education counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, and that these partnerships will act as a significant nexus of positive change” Mr. Reilly added.

A major challenge for the region is that higher education systems have been allowed to expand without corresponding resources, leading to questions being asked around the quality of graduates exiting universities into an already congested job market.

The report argues that as has been the case in primary education in the past two decades, a shift of conception is needed from access to quality, or access with quality & relevance.

“For many the great promise of the university has not been fulfilled. Diplomas have not provided automatic white-collar employment as may have been the case in previous decades, and in some contexts such as Nigeria, employment rates are no better for graduates than for those with primary or secondary level qualifications” the report states. 

Dr Tristan McCowan, author of the report, commented “A revealing aspect of the research is that students in the survey were for the most part positive about their universities, despite the serious concerns over quality expressed by other stakeholders. It seems they either lack a benchmark by which to evaluate their institutions, or are aware of their shortcomings, but do not feel at liberty to criticise them. Informally, students express their concerns, but they lack channels through which to influence their institutions. Universities need to reconsider how to engage students as partners in the task of enhancing the learning environment. Empowered students, able to provide constructive feedback on the provision they are receiving, are a vital piece in the puzzle of ensuring higher education quality in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Graduate unemployment rates are high in many sub-Saharan African countries, and the report shows a rising focus on self-employment instead of salaried employment – seen most obviously in Kenya, with a staggering 64 per cent of students aspiring to be self-employed . In the UK, the proportion of students who are in self-employment or starting their own business six months after graduation is only 4 per cent. 

The research, drawing on extensive focus groups with students in all four African countries and a survey completed by more than 6000 final-year students, makes six key conclusions: 

•Students no longer see their future in conventional salaried employment 

•Giving back to their communities is an important goal for students

•Careers services and skills development programmes are underutilised

•Students from disadvantaged backgrounds face an uphill struggle

•Universities are still characterised by rote learning

•Despite the critical problems, students are unwilling to speak out about the problems their universities face. 


Notes to Editor

For more information please contact Waihenya Kabiru + (44) 07990242690 or + (44) 07789036205

The report will be presented at ‘Going Global’, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education, in London, at the session Graduate employment time-bomb in sub-Saharan Africa 

This report forms part of the broader research project Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development (2013-2016), funded by the British Council. Focusing on Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and the UK, the project explores the role of higher education in fostering employability and developing just and prosperous societies. Through the dimension of ‘inclusive development’, the project goes beyond a narrow focus on graduate employment rates to consider the broader contributions that graduates make as citizens and community members, how their work can benefit all in society, and how equitable opportunities are between social groups.

This report presents findings from the second phase of the study , involving research in case study institutions in each of the four countries: primarily, a questionnaire survey with 6,000 final year students, in-depth individual interviews and focus groups with students from diverse disciplinary areas 


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