Stronger Partnerships Between Higher Education and Business can Elevate Africa’s Workforce
I recently had the good fortune to speak at the 2016 U.S. Africa Business Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was part of a panel discussion with representatives from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, and IBM that discussed how to improve the skills of Africa’s 21st Century workforce.
In nations like Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Zambia, the concept of a “town-gown” relationship between a university and the interests of its local business community has been a tangential one at best. But to create a more productive workforce to elevate Africa in this century, mutually beneficial connections between universities and businesses must evolve and strengthen. This will require some new approaches to higher education delivery in Africa.
Revisiting core curriculums: Higher education institutions must produce students who are better qualified for private sector jobs. Universities typically focus on “hard skills” and knowledge specific to disciplines being taught, such as anatomy for future healthcare workers or coding for engineering students. But research shows the traits most highly prized by employers are critical thinking and “soft skills” such as the ability to communicate clearly, work in a team, and make decisions—things that are rarely taught explicitly. Businesses can partner with universities to help shape curricula and introduce new programs and activities to address this skills gap.
Modifying classroom design to support new coursework: In the U.S. there’s been a move away from building lecture halls or desks-and-lectern classrooms toward spaces that offer more flexibility and opportunities for project work and collaboration. The same method can benefit African universities. Drawing input from local business owners and professionals, universities can adapt classrooms and courses for learning experiences that are rooted in the real world. This will produce graduates better able to compete in the 21st Century economy.
Exploring private funding for research efforts: During the recent global recession, businesses cut back on research funding by 50 percent, and those budgets aren’t coming back. In Africa, universities have resources such as laboratories that most businesses lack. Businesses can offer in-kind support such as industry connections, funding, and instructors and staff resources. Students also benefit from working on research projects that improve their knowledge and build their workplace skills.
The clear takeaway from our panel discussion was that a renewed interest in forging strategic partnerships between universities and businesses can benefit both groups. This same dynamic is shaping the relationship between industry and higher education in the U.S.