Transforming education for youth employment in Africa: challenges for & pathways to success

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Transforming education for youth employment in Africa: challenges for & pathways to success

Emmanuel Edudzie

11 Aug 2019

6min min read
  • Educational planning

frica is by far the world’s youngest continent. Compared to other parts of the world where national populations are aging, most African countries have majority youth populations. The African Development Bank (AfDB) projects that Africa’s rapidly growing youth population will reach over 830 million by 2050. From urbanising cities and towns to rural settlements in the countryside, and from middle-class citizens to low-income families living in poverty, one thing is certain – Africa’s youth have high expectations which are of increasing concern to policy makers across the continent. From Accra to Antananarivo, millions of young men and women are struggling to find jobs and opportunities to escape poverty for themselves and their families. 

The latest employment figures from South Africa support this youth expectation. According to the state’s Department of Statistics, youth aged 15–24 years are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market as the unemployment rate among this age group grew to 55.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019. At the continental level, young women and men account for 60 percent of all unemployed, according to the World Bank. The majority of youth in Africa do not have stable economic opportunities – according to the AfDB, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, another third are vulnerably employed, and only one in six is in wage employment. The problem is not just unemployment but also underemployment. In the absence of adequate social safety nets, young people in many African countries are constrained in underemployment with low-productivity, and low-wage jobs for their very survival. 

"According to the AfDB, one-third [of youth] are unemployed and discouraged, another third are vulnerably employed, and only one in six is in wage employment."

Addressing this continental challenge will surely need a multi-dimensional approach. But tackling the very root of the problem will require paying particular attention to providing more quality education and skills training to improve young people’s productivity. There is no doubt that the education that young people receive and the skills they acquire will ultimately expand the range of employment opportunities and levels of earnings they will have. 

In this regard, it is exciting to note that more children in Africa are in school than ever before. According to the World Bank, the share of children completing primary schools across Africa has recently passed the 70 percent mark, with best performing countries such as Benin, Botswana, Ghana and Tanzania more than tripling completion rates by 2010. This would mean that, compared to previous generations, the young people entering Africa’s labour force today have had more schooling. 

But across Africa, rapid increases in school participation and educational attainment have come at the cost of quality, thereby contributing to a serious shortfall in the skills needed for productive employment. Many African children are not acquiring the skills that provide the foundation for a productive life because of the abysmal track record of Africa’s weak education systems in producing these skills. Suffice to say that improvements in the quality of education are urgently required to ensure that incoming youth acquire the necessary foundational skills. As new generations of Africans enter and graduate from school in larger numbers, expectations of higher productivity and earnings must be matched with more rapid efforts at transforming education on the continent. Without transformation, the rewards that young people can expect to reap in the labour market will surely fall as more graduates enter the workforce. 

Transforming education means making it relevant for the realities and requirements of the 21st century. In the context of the ongoing technological revolution, transforming education requires preparing young people with the requisite skills for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the future of work. For Africa’s 420 million youth, this revolution will significantly shape their roles as current and future workers, consumers, and competitors. As policy makers across the continent discuss the policy and institutional reforms and investments needed to transform education systems and help absorb the millions of new entrants into the labour market each year, they must be willing to make a number of shifts in their education systems. 

First and foremost, there has to be a shift from current education systems frontloaded in the early years of life to ones that support learning throughout life. The old model of learn, work, and retire must give way to one of continuous education. Africa’s lifelong learning agenda must encompass formal and informal learning from early childhood and basic education through to adult learning, combining foundational skills, social and cognitive skills (such as learning to learn) and the skills needed for specific jobs, occupations or sectors. Across Africa, there needs to be more recognition of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning and the establishment of an effective lifelong learning system. 

Secondly, in place of blackboard, books and papers, Africa’s education systems need a shift to whiteboard, digital and virtual reality. New forms of literacy need to be embraced beyond academic literacy. As digital skills are becoming a core requirement, young people in Africa are at an advantage and must be supported to expand their digital skills. Today, as more and more workplaces on the continent use computers, more jobs will require at least basic digital skills. Just as numeracy and literacy skills are fundamental for every citizen, regardless of discipline and profession, so too are digital literacy skills. They will become necessary to succeed in today’s society and labour markets where ubiquitous connectivity is the new normal. Africa’s digitisation strategies should ensure that education and training programmes are upgraded, adapted, and expanded to keep up with the technical and higher-level skills demanded by the jobs of the digital economy. 

"The old model of learn, work, and retire must give way to one of continuous education."

Thirdly, discipline-based learning, usually focused on subjects, needs a shift to competency-based, multidisciplinary, project-based and digitally-enabled learning in order to appreciate the causes and complexities of modern-day challenges and develop innovative solutions. 

Education curriculum must target productivity and enhance skills across the board, including: basic cognitive skills (such as numeracy and literacy); higher-order cognitive skills (such as problem solving and critical analysis); soft skills or life skills (such as social skills, self-regulation, self-confidence, and conscientiousness); technical or vocational skills, which is often specific to occupations; and, business skills (such as entrepreneurship skills, managerial skills, and financial literacy).

In addition, technology can contribute to new ways of learning. In this regard, African education systems also need a shift from lecture-based, theoretical and passive learning, to experiential, immersive learning, including interactive, participatory courses and seminars, labs and simulation games across all disciplines. African education systems can learn from Finland’s experience. Despite having one of the highest-performing school systems in the world over the past 40 years, Finland launched a new core curriculum in 2016 that focuses on specific competencies and works across school subjects. The curriculum also includes collaborative classroom practices where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously, thereby encouraging Finnish schoolteachers to work together with their peers around multidisciplinary modules. 

Also, the position of teachers as lecturers in many African schools must change to teachers as learning coaches and mentors. This standardised, mass approach to learning needs a shift to customised, individualised learning in a bid to maximise everyone’s potential. In Singapore, personalised learning has included using analytics, whereby data relating to the student – on school attendance, test results, participation in class, as well as self-assessments and teacher assessments – is gathered and combined to draw out crucial insights into students’ learning strengths and difficulties. This effort is helping teachers build better pedagogical programmes, empower students to take an active part in their learning, target at-risk student populations through personalised interventions, and assess factors affecting completion and student success.

Finally, transforming education for youth employment in Africa will require a shift from the current system where education is mainly provided by a restricted set of state, religious or private actors, to a diversification of education provision and of training partnerships. Diversity of actors engaging in education will open up numerous new opportunities for people to train and retrain at different moments in their lives. It has the potential to reach out to individuals that would otherwise be excluded by enabling more private companies to create learning platforms that individuals or companies can use to acquire valuable new skills, with certification that is globally recognised. In the case of partnerships with industry, such certification will eliminate the requirement of formal education for jobs and enable recruitment based on skills, talent and potential. 

Indeed, transforming education in Africa is crucial to achieving the sustainable development goals on the continent. Regarded by many as a ‘development multiplier’, education will play a key role in accelerating progress not only towards the global goal for decent work and growth, but also poverty eradication, good health, gender equality, reduced inequalities, action on climate change, and peaceful societies. It will require involvement of all stakeholders, including governments, private firms, non-governmental training providers, and young people themselves. 

(Main image: School children put up their hands to answer questions in Ikuna village primary school during class run by a Student Partnerships Worldwide (SPW) volunteer - In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.