The big day
The weather was right, warm as the sun smiled down on the crowd gathered in celebratory joy. This was a climax of years of long nights and seeming toil had finally come to its end.
Chola was among those with an irrepressible smile. All the sacrifices of his folks had paid off. They no longer needed to worry about parting with every penny they could get to ensure he got all the money he needed. Each time he received any money from home, despite the excitement of having cash in his pocket, he knew the family had forgone something.
This was graduation day. He was proudly clad in the much sought after gown. He could now be called a graduate. He had his Bachelor’s qualification along with several of his mates. The future they had been chasing was upon them and all those dreams and aspirations were now more likely than not to be realised! You needed an education to succeed. Not any other education, a degree was the best. Chola and his peers now had this. The sky was the limit.
Reality dawns in dreamland
That was over a year ago. To be specific 18 months. Chola had pursued a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) qualification at the Copperbelt University (CBU), the second public university situated north of Zambia. He had not found a job as yet. He languished at home, devouring the daily newspapers, each day hoping for an opportunity. This he did with a mindset of “one more try”.
He had littered so many offices with what was his CV and accompanying academic papers. Alas, he was still unemployed embarrassingly even asking for a few kwachas for a haircut. Times were hard.
Chola is among the thousands of nameless ones dotted around Zambia. Graduates that have left the tertiary institutions that housed them only to roam the streets with khaki envelopes carrying their CVs and certificates.
The institutions churn out graduates religiously but they are not being sucked into society, industry or the economy as expected.
What has gone wrong?
Zambia has been an independent state since October 24 1964. The University of Zambia (UNZA), the first public university, was opened in 1966. The CBU is the second largest university that has seen much growth and transformation since 1989.
Combined, these two institutions are producing thousands of graduates each year. The CBU alone at their 20th graduation ceremony in 2011 released 1,037 an increase from 835 the previous year. UNZA on the other hand with a larger student populace produces more on an annual basis.
Needless to state, Zambia has a chain of public and private colleges, universities too. These add to the army of diploma and degree graduates released each year.
The structural anatomy of the Zambian education system is such that there are a lot of primary, basic and secondary schools that have come to life over the last two decades. This increase has not been replicated at tertiary level as the main universities for instance remain UNZA and CBU. Despite this imbalance, pupils are passing exams at grade 12/form 5 level and queueing up for a decent university education.
This has created an unfortunate scenario where the two higher institutions have been strained and over enrolment is more of a norm than an exception.
Coupled with this, the economy has stabilised over the last 5 to 10 years. However, beyond these statistically impressive parameters, the stability and growth has not yielded much in terms of opportunities.
Industrial activity is minimal with manufacturing for instance not a major contributor. Agriculture with all its potential has not offered much for the Zambian with most commercial activity driven by large foreign farmers. Mining therefore remains the major driver of Zambia’s economic growth, stability or success, whichever one wishes to call it.
This then entails that these thousands in the Graduates’ Army must therefore venture into the informal sector and apply their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge.
The hard honest questions
Is that the case? If so, why do we have a legion pounding the city streets searching for employment? If not, what has kept the graduates jobless? How does the cream end up where they are?
Should every graduate leave university or college aiming for formal employment?
This is what we see. There is an inherent inclination towards being employed and strides to undertake a journey into self-employment remain low. Most of the individuals that give it a go either get frustrated with the job search thus survival necessitates the plunge or it is the rare few that boldly opt for this path.
Victims of the system?
My mind wrestles with the “why” of this scenario. I am one of those that have left University and pushed to get into formal employment. When I look around at my peers and classmates, I am at pains to count any that are employers and not employees.
The speculative reasons abound. In some cases, the formal sector does need the contribution and value of the fresh blood. In other instances, there is a lack of support for one to venture into self-employment. Perhaps there is no capital or experience to be business owners. Then lastly, there is the sobering truth that the environment has not embraced the graduate and therefore, this fresh blood has no clue whatsoever where to start. Hence the fear.
What preparation then happens at these institutions? Are students trained to be employed? Can value only come through formal employment?
The system currently drills a student thoroughly with the theory of what the world is like. Mostly though, support in terms of attachments to experience this reality may not be at the level it should. From the lecture rooms, students must appreciate the foundational principles and at the same time have the opportunity to test this theory in practice. This holds true for disciplines such as business and other arts.
Over the years, this has not been the case on two fronts. Firstly, this has not been well structured for these disciplines to ensure that experience is mandatory before one graduates. It could be a result of the numbers in each class in every academic year. Secondly, few companies seem to open their doors to such offers. Whether it is because they are not approached or policy dictates is worth investigating.
Without this valuable platform, there is no way one will appreciate what happens out there and form the initial perspective of what it takes to be an active player in industry post-University or college.
We see so many graduates that can cram an entire text book and pass remarkably in exams. The theory is sucked in and discharged in the three hour exams. But these “high exam fliers” crumble in terms of delivery when they join the “system”.
Additionally, there is a fear of the unknown built in the graduate’s mind that makes it difficult to venture onto the unchartered paths of entrepreneurship and self-employment. It is even worse when they taste formal employment, a fixed guaranteed monthly salary and all the perks of formal employment such as vehicles, allowances, airtime, loans and mortgages. That is the glue that ensures they are stuck to the formal world. It is unimaginable to have to leave these for the risk of failure in setting oneself up.
With all due respect to those self-employed, we then note that the courageous ones in the informal sector got in as the last resort. Perhaps education proved to be a mountain too high and after dropping out or not making the cut, self employment was the only way out.
But even where education worked fine, the battle for employment proves to be a strong frustration and thus one is forced to consider alternatives to survive.
This brings to the fore a cardinal observation as to why this fear haunts many a graduate. Does the lecture room not prepare one for such a time? Don’t those tests, assignments and exams equip one for the real world? Should graduation not be the first step on the journey to the land of milk and honey, overflowing with success?
The cry for relevance and quality
Seemingly, this challenge is prominent when we look at the sea of jobless graduates and the employed graduates that see nothing more beyond the monthly cheque. That perhaps is the reason we have so few that venture into innovation, entrepreneurship or even thought leadership.
When we quickly assess the quality of students or graduates now, what do we see? What contribution do we get in terms of thought, value addition or opinion on topical issues affecting our immediate environment?
It cannot be disputed that the quality we observe is uninspiring. We see a set of students or graduates that are unable to articulate, analyse or appreciate what is happening in their environment. Whether political, economic or innovation. The consistent coverage we get of students is when they protest over meal allowances or are paraded for political pronouncements.
It remains such a rarity to hear an informed student or the self proclaimed “intelligentia” address pertinent societal issues with conviction, knowledge and refreshing eloquence.
Furthermore, it may appear that the education system is not equipping most students to impact industry with innovation, new ways of doing things or game changing efficiency that an economy like ours yearns for.
This is where the call for relevance and quality must be loud. Most of those that graduate and join the industry shine on account of their inherent abilities and perhaps inborn skills meeting opportunity. This appears the case more than the education system ingraining it.
It can therefore be argued that our curriculum and educational makeup needs urgent review. A curriculum must be relevant to the present times and needs of a nation and society. It must be dynamic enough to incorporate the overall demands of society, the economy and the globe at large. A developing nation such as Zambia must see an emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation and related skills for instance. There must be attachments and case studies that amplify this with additional lessons drawn from nations that have walked a similar path before us. This allows best practice to be shared and adopted as we strive for growth.
The immediate plea then would be the composition of an independent body of scholars and technocrats that will periodically review curricula. This is to be done solely with the intention of ensuring our educational system offers relevant and dynamic content. The curriculum and institutions thus would become an active part of the nation’s development and transformation agenda.
Taking stock and starting where we are
With the review done as and when necessary, we also need on the parallel to establish a database. This would in essence capture the skills the country has or is adding on an annual basis. This exercise would in turn entail assessing how many are in employment both formal and informal.
The upside to this kind of database and information is the contribution it would make to national planning. The government would know which skill sets the nation needs at a particular time or which ones to invest in and upgrade to align training to the development blueprint. It can further also form a basis for remuneration as there would be information on whether the skills we have are appropriately paid, engaged or lowly compensated.
Idealistic it may sound but Zambia’s planning needs to be enhanced to scientific level and be a reliable input as the nation strives for development. This would undoubtedly elevate educational institutions to the urgent status as development partners. We would then be on our way to seeing the products of the educational system being impactful and relevant graduates with skills that transform society whether at formal, informal, social or political level.
In the absence of such a thrust, we will continue grappling with our dilemma. The challenge of graduates that shy away from entrepreneurship, self employment, innovation or social leadership. The reality of every graduate leaving university or college with their mind on formal employment as the ultimate fruit of the education pursued.
It is a challenge the educational institutions must address urgently to make them relevant in our present dispensation. Similarly, government must take an active interest in this area to support the quest for excellence. The government must also facilitate to allow businesses (private sector) and even the public sector to be active players in building an entrepreneurial pool or providing a platform for graduates to use their skills for the progress of the nation.
One more day of the same
Chola stared at the sun lazily as another day drew to its close. The sunset offered no hope for him as he had nothing to look forward to with the dawn of the following day.
He set the daily newspaper on the stool and strolled to the bedroom. There were no employment opportunities yet again in today’s publication.
One more jobless day and another dose of hopelessness.
It was the story of a graduate’s life.