The opportunity to work in Sub Saharan Africa on behalf of the British Council was a fantastic experience, interestingly many of the challenges facing HEIs regarding employability are starkly similar to those faced in the UK (and beyond). The context however is markedly different. Sub Saharan Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, both economically and demographically. 10 of the world’s youngest populations are within Sub Saharan Africa - with huge expectations for education. The region needs highly skilled human capital for its sustained economic growth, so it must continue to expand its higher education sector. However, development cannot be achieved by merely producing large numbers of graduates; it must be ensured that they are productively employed.
To help shape and enable this, the HEA workshops were designed to enable participants to focus on identifying aspects of ‘employability’ that could be enhanced and embedded, with the ultimate aim being to positively influence employment metrics. It is evident that employability as an agenda is here to stay – its prevalence may be deeper within the UK but it is a globally growing agenda. We need to recognise a range of factors that are feeding in to the employability context – labour market detail, policy and politics, employer expectations, social mobility of students – including regional variations and an overt focus on ‘employability skills’ as often (and I would argue incorrectly) the sole mechanism to tackle employability challenges.
The trip offered an opportunity to explore the relationship between higher education and employability, to acknowledge the challenges and nuances each country faced, and to empower delegates to take forward change, no matter how marginal, across their roles and remits.
There were three key areas that were prevalent across the five countries represented at the workshops – capacity, communication and data – which I briefly outline below:
Given the need for highly skilled human capital it is essential that graduates have the necessary mix of values, behaviours, qualities, knowledge and skills that can enable them to be successful in either employment or self-employment. To enable this, it’s vital for higher education institutions to have strong academic leadership, highly capable teaching and learning staff, matched by socially responsive research.. However, just as important is the ability to professionalise the support staff, through appropriate qualifications and professional recognition, to support all functions and capacity within HEIs.
It was evident across both workshops that more needs to be done in order to build dialogical bridges between a range of stakeholders. Critical to this are discussions with employers. However, discussion with all stakeholders, internal and external, is required. There is also a direct need to maintain positive and constructive discussion with departments, agencies, groups and policy makers.
The importance of data cannot be underestimated, since it must be collected in order to understand where graduates’ progress to following university.The tracking of such data is not unusual here in the UK. While only a static snapshot, we cannot escape the fact that it is incredibly important in providing an oversight of student progression- and therefore is an important measure when considering how to optimise the student experience at university.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nigeria and South Africa, it truly felt as if this was the beginning of a sea change to take ownership of a growing issue and for delegates to look to tackle this through collaborative means, such as developing and/or joining a community of practice (such as the HEA’s Employability Community of Practice). I met a range of dedicated, driven and engaging staff from a broad spectrum of roles within HEIs including professional services, senior management and academics – alongside representation from government and employer groups. The positive attitudes and desire to effect change to ultimately enhance student success was refreshing, empowering and exciting, especially as they face challenges that I suspect would be incomprehensible to many colleagues within HE in other parts of the world.
I look forward to the opportunity to return in the future and I’m excited to discover what new initiatives and change has already been instigated.
This workshop was complemented by a workshop on the theory and design of careers services. The theory and design of careers services was provided by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) with group work elements co-facilitated by the HEA.
The workshops are part of a three phase British Council initiative to highlight the need to support professional staff and identify capacity building beyond academic colleagues. As part of phase one this workshop specifically provided an opportunity for participants to develop their knowledge and understanding of employability through an introduction to the HEA Framework.