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Shifting Attitudes on Higher Education: A Radical Approach to Bridging the Critical Skills Gap

17 May 2020 at 21:05hrs | Views
Young people are Africa's most valuable and the single most important key to unlocking sustainable economic growth. The United Nations' Strategic Development Goals (SDG 4) commits countries to ensure that students acquire knowledge and skills in areas such as sustainable development and global citizenship among others. SDG 4 (Target 4.4) sets a target to substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship. It further states that beyond work-specific skills, emphasis must be placed on developing high-level cognitive and non-cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, team working, communication skills, and conflict resolution which can be used across a range of occupational fields.

Agenda 2063 created by African governments states that Africa's human capital is its most precious resource but can only be fully exploited through sustained investment in education. Agenda 2063 calls for support for technical and vocational training to step up and be linked to specific needs in the labor market, in both the formal and informal sectors, including the skills to create small businesses.

Zimbabwe has a bulging youth dividend and boasts a high literacy rate which is over 93% and generally touted to be the highest in the region. The United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written material associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in community and wider society. (UNESCO, 2004; 2017).

Although broad in many respects as shown by the above definition, the literacy rate of a country does not necessarily speak to the level of skills and competencies that are vital for the economic development of the country. For the avoidance of doubt, although Zimbabwe's estimated literacy rate is at least 93%, the National Skills Report 2018 estimated the country's skills level to be a paltry 34%.

The skills audit showed that the country has a critical skills shortage of 62%, with the engineering and technology sector having a skills gap of a whopping 96%. While this can be attributed to a significant brain drain of professionals in the country, among other factors, the revelations from the audit, to a greater extent speak to the deficiencies in the education curricula (which is largely geared towards producing academic graduates). Most research work in Zimbabwe results in academic research papers leaving a significant gap in research that demands skill and which results in useful products and service which have economic value.

Local universities and poly-technique colleges also face several challenges, the most significant of which relate to underfunding. Underfunding has resulted in archaic technological equipment in universities and has particularly resulted in a condition in which students are viewed as cash cows for funding university or college programs and are therefore enrolled in large numbers with even low pointers (minimum two points at A level) finding their way into the universities. Enrolling low pointers is not a negative thing in itself, but mass enrolment directly or indirectly impacts quality assurance procedures which in turn affects the quality of graduates produced by the same institutes.

Zimbabwe, therefore, needs to redesign the higher education curricula and address underlying structural challenges so that it can produce students with both academic skills and technical experience. The education system and policy must be aligned with urgency to the strategic development goals (SDG 4) and Agenda 2063 so that it is capable of imparting 21st-century digital skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills which are vital for unlocking sustainable growth in Zimbabwe.

With a vast human capital base to build on, developing, and strengthening 21st-century digital skills and knowledge in the youth has a pivotal role to play in unlocking Zimbabwe's potential for growth and positioning the country as a viable economic partner to the region.

However, reconfiguring the education system so that it creates employable graduates with the requisite 21st-century skills is a less-than-straightforward affair. It requires a paradigm shift in attitudes towards curricula, teaching pedagogies, and how to provide students with highly flexible, mobile mindsets in the 21st-century workplace (Laura Martin, University World News, May 14, 2020).

Rapid technological developments that fundamentally disrupt what we do and how we do it underpin the need for a thrust towards an education system that places more emphasis on capabilities and not theoretical knowledge or degrees. Ernst and Young, one of the big four Accounting firms has since removed academic qualifications from their training program entry requirements as part of challenging the traditional way of thinking. They are also transforming the recruitment processes to open up opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background. This is after the firm found no correlation between success in academic education and job performance from its performance analysis of over 400 graduates. Other companies scraping degree requirements include audit firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), and the UK publishing firm Penguin Random House UK which removed degree requirements for most jobs except for specialized jobs like legal practitioners and accountants.

Such a radical approach may sound relatively new but has long been embraced by some of the most radical and innovative business leaders in history. Henry Ford once famously said, 'It's all one to me if a man comes from Sing Sing Prison or Harvard, at Ford, we hire a man, not his history.' Zimbabwe should consider adopting similar attitudes toward hire education and training to address the skills gap. HR managers should look for proof of skills and the ability to deliver results rather than emphasizing degrees and credits.

There is need for government to develop, support and strengthen alternative academic models for higher education like Competency-Based Education (CBE), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Learning (Boot) camps that are specifically designed to fill the skills gap and which demonstrate newly acquired competencies rather than focusing on grades and credits. Zimbabwe's fundamental problems will not be solved by graduates with impressive degree certificates, but by those who can think independently, integrate into fast-paced work environments, learn new ways of doing things and develop creative solutions to real problems.

Only by taking learning and teaching from being theory (subject knowledge) based to being more practical can we effectively address the widening skills gap. In line with Agenda 2063, the government through its relevant ministries should invest in skills, science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, so that the youth can drive Zimbabwe's development agenda forward. This entails, among other things, reintroducing the STEM program in high schools to increase the number of learners venturing into the field of science and technology. Training and learning should be informed by in-demand skills in the labor market and impart entrepreneurship skills so that the youth can address the high unemployment levels in the country by starting their own successful businesses.

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Nkosilathi Lesley Ngwenya is an ACCA Accounting student, Accounting Intern at the City of Bulawayo, Mathematics Tutor, and a freelance writer. Send feedback to nkosilathilesley@hotmail.com.

Source - Nkosilathi Lesley Ngwenya
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