Sunday, October 21, 2012

East African Community states have been pushing to harmonise higher education suffered as they integrate into one trading bloc.

But the process has over the past few years hit setbacks due to the different education systems. A regional higher education forum between the East African Business Council and university administrators is to be held in Arusha this week.

DICTA ASIIMWE spoke to the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) on the disparity of training at universities and the skills that employers are looking for in university graduates.

The plan to harmonise and improve higher education systems in the region has been one of many meetings but not so much progress. What will this meeting achieve?

Our aim is to bring together academia and the business community so that they can discuss issues of common interest to each party. This forum stems from the lack of linkage between the academia in general and the business community who are the employers of graduates from the university. Each side is blaming the other; you find the employers blaming universities that they are very academic and not focusing on the relevance of the curriculum they are offering students and as such they end up producing graduates who know a lot of theory but cannot be employed. When they are put in the work place, they are unable to perform. The second complaint is that universities are ivory towers; they are doing a lot of research, spending public money to do research but there is no end product. There is nothing coming out of the universities to contribute to the development of the economies of East Africa. 

But if the universities are producing the research, they are doing their job; then whoever is interested – government, public institutions or the private sector – can collect the research and use it. 

Now you are talking from the side of the universities, which say they are producing graduates, who fit the job market. The curriculum is good; they have the standard and therefore would expect that these people get employed. They are also saying they are doing high quality research but the industry and private sector does not pick these research results from the universities. On top of this, they are complaining that they are not doing good research, particularly research in development because they are not getting support from industry and the private sector. Research in development which would drive the economy is usually supported by the private sector all over the world, but here it is not. So, along with our colleagues from the East African Business Council we thought should bring the two sides together and see how they could address those concerns.

Is it the duty of the private sector to determine what should go into university teaching?

Yes and no. They have a role to play because the product that we are producing from the universities ultimately has to go there. Now if these people don’t have a role, obviously there will be rejection. Even the universities will not know how to mould their curriculum in order to address needs of the private sector. But of course they are not there to determine what universities should teach. The private sector or anybody else including the Inter University Council cannot go to university A and say this is what you should teach and this is how you should teach. We can only air our opinion.

So then what’s your role?

In addition to saying we think this is the best way to do things, we give guidelines on the curriculum. If we are really talking about a university curriculum, it must look at excellence — at somebody who can think and be articulate, but it must also produce somebody who has skills. It must be relevant. These are necessary but if you concentrate only on producing academicians then you are doing injustice to those people you are producing and to the recipients of those people. If you are concentrating on giving skills without making these people think, then you are producing technicians. To get the balance between the two you need to involve stakeholders: you need to know, for example, what the banks need from a graduate in commerce. What kind of knowledge they need. You must know that, and to do that you must talk to them. Things change; what the banks were doing 10 or 20 years ago is different for now. You have to talk to those who are in the business.

That is true but universities conduct research every five or 10 years to know whether their courses are still relevant. You also produce quality assurance guidelines for universities which suggests that you carry out research on market needs.  So do stakeholders need to spend money to meet in Arusha?

First of all it will come from universities; they will say that after every five years they research and reorient their curriculum, but in actual sense they just repackage the same thing. I can tell the secrets of the universities because I have been there. In most cases professors don’t want to lose jobs; if a professor is trained in a discipline that is becoming obsolete with time, and he is the person who has to bring in this new programme, do you think he is going to overhaul the old programme? This is what is happening in the universities.

Article cross-posted from TheEastAfrican


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