Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa: the first eight months

In May we launched a new initiative, TESCEA, which sets out to transform learning experiences in four East African universities – and, through that, the future of hundreds of graduates, and their ability to contribute to change in their communities and countries. That ‘we’ does not refer only to INASP, but to a partnership of eight organizations – in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and the UK – committed to placing higher education at the heart of the region’s development.

The last eight months have been busy across the partnership. Activities have included:

  • Meeting together in Entebbe, Uganda to launch the project
  • A series of transformative learning workshops in Tanzania and Uganda
  • Literature reviews on critical thinking and mapping out tools to support the project
  • The first two course re-design sessions in Uganda
  • Events with external stakeholders – businesses, social sector representatives, government – to engage them in our thinking and to learn from them

A different kind of partnership

We’ve been running TESCEA as an active project since May, but as a partnership we’ve been working together for almost three years. Good partnership can be hard. We certainly haven’t got it completely right yet, and every partnership is different, but there are some important things that we have learnt so far.

At the heart of the project and our partnership is the ambition to lead and facilitate a real shift in the learning experience offered to students studying at four universities, and, from that foundation of learning, to contribute to a wider process of change in the region.

The change that we seek to achieve is complex, with the needs, expectations, and capacities of employers, communities, government, academics and young people themselves to take into account, as pedagogy is re-shaped and learning environments re-imagined. We recognized early on that this needed a different kind of partnership – one that brought together organizations with different talents, expertise and experience. While we recognized that need, that of course didn’t mean that we could know what it would be like to work together in practice.

Learning to work together

Over the last eight months we’ve not only been grappling with our core activities, and the financial and administrative set up of the project; we’ve also been getting used to each other – as individuals and as organizations, with diverse expertise and experience, and uniting different institutional cultures, working styles and expectations.

At times that has been challenging. The universities of Dodoma, Mzumbe, Gulu and Uganda Martyrs are at the heart of the TESCEA partnership. It is in each of those institutions that the change is being driven and will be experienced – both its rewards and its discomforts. This means that our university partners experience the project in different, more immediate ways. They have to persuade colleagues to shift their teaching practice, convince employers to engage with the university in new ways, and ultimately take new approaches into the classroom and to their students.

To lead this process of change, the teams at each university are drawing on expertise and support from four external organizations in different ways: INASP, Ashoka, AFELT and LIWA. Those of us ‘outside’ need to find ways to offer support, advice and leadership in ways that respond to and recognize each institution’s leadership, needs, and expertise.

Transforming learning

Amongst our first successes as a partnership have been a series of ‘transformative learning’ workshops, which have brought several partners together in a week-long event to rethink the learning philosophies and approaches that underpin teaching, and to give groups of academics a grounding in some of the theories and concepts that are at the heart of what we’re trying to do.

As anyone who works in higher education will attest, it can be difficult to encourage changes in practice – and in some cases behaviour, whether of students or academic staff – particularly when the incentives and the institutional or national environment aren’t aligned to that change.

Many of those who took part have talked about light bulb moments, which enabled them to think about their role in the classroom in a new way, and several have spoken of wanting to start making changes straightaway. Real change will require a lot more energy and effort of course, but that demand and commitment are going to be crucial. Colleagues from Uganda Martyrs, Mzumbe and AFELT have all blogged about this recently.

This marks a success – for the relational as well as the practical side of the partnership. It was only possible because experienced academics at each university embraced the potentially uncomfortable challenge of inviting another group of academics and learning specialists in to help them rethink their approaches to teaching and learning, and because they, in turn, worked to adapt their own learning and practice to the needs of the four universities.

The workshops not only helped each team to introduce their academic colleagues to new ideas, and to the value of the project for them and their institutions, but in small ways it has also begun to encourage some early shifts in teaching practice, as feedback from some participants has indicated. These early ‘wins’ have also helped to cement the partnership and demonstrate the value of different organizations working together in new ways to tackle old problems.

A process of partnership

Although we came together initially several years ago, we are steadily moving from what might be characterized as a loose partnership, a consortium of organizations working alongside each other, towards a strong partnership built on a series of teams working together in pursuit of shared goals, learning alongside each other, challenging and supporting each other.

An important aspect of operationalizing the partnership has been the formation of this series of teams. There is a core project team in place, or emerging, in each organization, as well as teams that cut across the partnership: we have a leadership team, a MEL team, a communications team, and a finance team. Alongside these are a gender working group, an emerging working group of the three Kenya-based partners, and a series of teams built around specific elements of the project, such as between INASP and AFELT on the development of the course design process. These teams, woven across the partnership, have begun to create the web that keeps us in touch, connected, learning and solving problems together. This process has also highlighted the importance of devolving power and responsibility – from the centre of the partnership, and from the team leaders in each organization – to enable their colleagues to take a stronger role in the change process.

Navigating bumps in the road

Of course it hasn’t always been so easy to find the best ways of working together. Along the way we’ve hit a few bumps and had some difficult conversations. There have been some confusions over roles and responsibilities between partners or within teams.

The management and reporting requirements of the project, and the pressures to assemble, verify and report data and figures to strict schedules have created significant stresses for all partners. This “accountability” work has also competed for time with “implementing” work – to develop and drive key project activities forward – as well as partners’ other commitments, straining relationships at times.

Talking to each other – as much as we can

We recognized from the start that a partnership often includes real but unspoken imbalances of power, as well as differences in opportunity and resources.

One of the ways that we have sought to make explicit this “partnership in progress” nature – and to ensure we can cope with those strains – is by how we communicate. We have several WhatsApp groups, which help us stay in touch, and overcome the dangers of information being lost in inboxes. It also gives us a more ‘familiar’ way to connect – away from the sometimes over-formality or complicated reply all chains of emails.

We have a regular, monthly catch-up call of our leadership team, drawn from across the partnership, a regular catch-up for our MEL team, again from across the partnership, and instituted a more in-depth quarterly learning meeting which brings together both team leads and MEL leads.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t. For a busy team of people, juggling teaching commitments, core administrative roles, as well as the extra demands of a project, across eight organizations and four countries, finding time to connect for 90 minutes every month is no small achievement. But we’ve had almost the full team on most calls – each person setting aside the time, and often staying late in the office. That evidences to me not just each person’s commitment to the project and partnership, but a collective recognition that we can only navigate the challenges we will inevitably encounter by making time to talk regularly.

And these aren’t just loose catch-up calls; they are necessarily challenging, as partners ask questions of each other, are open about their frustrations and problems, and are increasingly frank about what they need and expect from each other.

Multiple channels of communication – within and across teams, and less formal ways to talk – have been important. While we knew communications would be important from the outset, we couldn’t have determined exactly what was going to work best for us. That needed to emerge in response to the type of conversations we needed to have and the preferences of the group. We also had to get the technology right to do this – it’s easy to talk of virtual meetings, but not if you have participants dropping in and out of calls (we’ve found Zoom particularly useful).

What do we need to do more of?

This is a work in progress, and these are just one set of reflections, from one individual (me) in one partner organization (and also the lead partner).

It’s clear that we need to do more to listen and learn from each other – to avoid the temptation to offer our ‘standard’ tools and expertise without thinking deeply about how we adapt them to the needs and realities of the partner and the institutional environment. We all need to be open to change.

We also need to challenge each other more. Sometimes we’re too polite when it would be healthier to have a frank, open and honest conversation. We’ve had a few of those, and, while they are not easy, they have helped.

But it’s our growing openness, and our steadily improving ability to communicate, which makes me optimistic for the success of our project.

 

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Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) is helping young people in Tanzania and Uganda to use their skills and ideas to tackle social and economic problems. With partners in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, TESCEA supports universities, industries, communities and government to work together to create an improved learning experience for students – both women and men. This improved learning experience fosters the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and allows for practical learning beyond the classroom that improves a graduate’s employability.

The TESCEA partnership is led by INASP (UK), working with Mzumbe University (Tanzania), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), Gulu University (Uganda), Uganda Martyrs University (Uganda), Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (Kenya), LIWA Programme Trust (Kenya) and Ashoka Africa (Kenya).

TESCEA is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) as part of DFID’s SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Director of Programmes at INASP.

One Response to “Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa: the first eight months

  • Moses Arinaitwe
    5 months ago

    Dear Sir,

    I am thrilled to read the employability transformation project take off. Allow me make a few observations based on my experiences of facilitating University Councils to clearly undertand their functions and how they link University Vision, Mission, Charter and Strategic Plans.

    I have learnt that without undertsnding the relations cited above, University Councils fail to implement both Government and International plolcy commitmments. For example, when you closely look at the Uganda Vision 2040 which provides for Science Technology Engineering and Innovation (STEI) you realise that this policy has practically supported employability for social change. It remains critical for a University Council to study the policy and translate relevant provisions to action. Councils are policy making organs for Universities.

    When you study the National Development Plans I & II you realise that in their design strategies for strengthening the promotion of science, technology and innovation werer were articulated. The challenges now remains for Universities to refer to these national plans in order to bring well articulated policies (including at sector level) to action. For example in Uganda the plans enjoin institutions (especially Universities) to establish Industrial Parks and support establishment of Technology Incubation Centres. For sure this is one straight route Universities can walk in their journeys of enahncing employability skills among undergraduates and eventually graduates will facilitate social change ! Not so?

    Looking at the two policy frameworks one realises that Government has provided a conducive environment for enhancement of employability skills among University products. The challenge however remains similar to what the Uganda Government White Paper (1992) established: a) roles of Universities in generating advanced knowledge and innovations through research has failed to be translated or adapted to local and Ugandan situations; b) long-distance and study-while-at-work education has failed to take off; and c) promoting the development of an indigenous scientific and technological capacity needed to tackle the problems of development (including harnessing social transformation for nemployability) is yet to be overcome by centers of knowledge production and generation.

    In light of the above observations, I have facilitated trainings targetting University Councils where I have had opportunity to share lessons and country experiences. I would be happy to discuss these experiences with a researcher with a view to writing a publisheable materials that can contribute towards this work.

    I am an Author and Heath and Human Resources for Health Systems Specialist. My recent publication is at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/3659520357/ref=tmm_other_meta_binding_new_olp_sr?ie=UTF8&condition=new&qid=1549657882&sr=8-2-fkmrnull