A recent report has challenged the conventional wisdom that Africa's educated youth often find themselves without a job after completing their studies.
The study, conducted by the University of Sussex in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, gathered information from over 5,000 participants who had graduated from schools and universities between 1980 and 1995. The results showed that employment outcomes were considerably better than expected.
Researchers noted that although governments and parents continued to invest heavily in university and secondary education, it was widely believed that young people were increasingly unable to find appropriate employment which effectively utilised the knowledge and skills acquired at tertiary institutions.
"Stories abound of university graduates who are driving taxis, running tuck shops, working as clerks, etc," said the report. But the findings revealed that only between one and three percent of graduates in the four countries were unemployed, and joblessness among secondary school leavers was also fairly low.
In Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda, unemployment among school leavers ranged between 5 and 15 percent. Zimbabwe was an exception, with nearly a quarter of graduates unemployed in late 2001, but the country's rapidly deteriorating economy was seen as the main reason for this.
It was acknowledged that large proportions of both groups had been unemployed at least once since leaving school or university.
Despite a push by governments to accelerate private sector development in their respective countries, graduates were largely absent from the private sector. "With a few exceptions, only a tiny number of university graduates are self-employed, and these graduates are involved in activitities such as consultancy, which is donor-driven and dependent," the report said.
Self-employment was seen as a last resort. And to tackle the perception, the researchers recommended that primary and secondary education be re-orientated, empowering students to be more entrepreneurial.
A number of graduates expressed concerns over the relevance of curricula at secondary schools and universities. "A constant refrain in all the discussions [with study participants] is that secondary schools and universities continue to inculcate attitudes towards the world of work which are inappropriate for low-income, predominantly rural economies," the researchers commented.
Almost 50 percent of secondary school leavers in Malawi said the curriculum they had followed was irrelevant and outdated. In Zimbabwe, 41 percent of students who graduated from university in the 1990s were also dissatisfied with the content of the undergraduate curricula.
Graduates complained that the academic programmes were "too theoretical, with too little practice", and there were not enough undergraduate opportunities for industrial and other kinds of training-related work experience.
A lack of training in information technology and management skills, which further undermined the relevance of the degree they held, was also frequently mentioned by students.
Another concern was the growing competition for a limited number of "good jobs" in the formal sector, which was fuelling "qualification escalation". In the race to stay ahead of the demand for "better" qualifications, school and university leavers were investing considerable time and money in acquiring additional qualifications, which they hoped would improve their opportunities in the job market.
Since completing their degrees, graduates from the 1980s had spent between two and three years attending further training courses. In each of the countries, over half the group sampled had enrolled at some stage in a Ph.D or master's degree programme.
Research findings also disproved anecdotal evidence of a permanent "brain drain" of university graduates from these low-income countries.
While the number of professionals leaving Zimbabwe in recent years has been cause for concern, the report noted that the "brain drain" in Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania was "considerably less serious".
Around 20 percent of Ugandan and Zimbabwean graduates from the 1980s were living abroad in mid-2001. However, the corresponding figures for Malawi and Tanzania were much lower - only eight percent and four percent respectively. The economic and political climate in each country was seen as the chief determinant for emigration.
While governments could do very little in the short term to stem the exodus of professionals, improving public sector salaries would contribute to encouraging skilled workers to remain in their home countries, the report noted.
The researchers concluded that while universal primary education was vital, improving the quality of secondary and higher education should be a priority for developing countries. Failure to invest significantly in tertiary education would have disastrous consequences for human resource development, the report said.
To view the report: www.ids.ac.uk