Understanding the skills gaps between higher education and the workplace in East Africa

There can be gaps between the skills students learn in university and the skills desired by employers. Joanna Wild discusses the development of a skills matrix to help identify and guide approaches to address the skills gaps in East Africa.

Graduates can leave university with deep knowledge of their subject area but much less experience of the wider skills that they might need in the workplace and for wider roles within society. This includes skills such as teamwork, communication, leadership and reflective thinking.

This is a challenge worldwide and a challenge we are particularly focusing on in East Africa in the Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) partnership. The partnership, which started in 2018, has a goal of better equipping graduates for employability by embedding ways to acquire critical thinking and problem-solving skills within university curricula. It involves two universities in Tanzania, two universities in Uganda, three Kenyan organizations involved in supporting higher education and employability, and UK-based INASP.

At the start of the work, the eight partners in TESCEA were aware that, while there is much talk about the skills gaps between higher education and the workplace, there was less systematic analysis of the gaps. To address this, and to ensure the approaches developed within TESCEA are underpinned by understanding of the evidence, we conducted a deep literature review. We looked at journal and conference papers, book chapters, blog posts, government papers and publications from employers. Crucially, given the geographical scope of TESCEA, having all eight partners involved in identifying literature for review enabled us to ensure that nearly half the literature we looked at originated from or focused on Sub Saharan Africa.

In a new paper we discuss how our literature review helped us to identify the key critical thinking, entrepreneurial and communication skills that employers are looking for. We also discuss how we then mapped these skills onto L. Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning to develop a skills matrix. This matrix presents key skills organized within six kinds of learning: foundational knowledge; application; integration; human dimension; caring; and learning to learn. This approach fits well with TESCEA because Dee Fink’s taxonomy encourages transformative learning which is an important part of our approach. In addition, it recognizes that gaining experiential skills and growing as a person (such as dispositions and attitudes) are of equal importance to cognitive learning outcomes.

From theory to practice

Reviewing and analysing the literature provided a deep insight into the skills that students should gain during their time in higher education, and clustering and mapping these skills to produce the matrix provides valuable insight into priorities and inter-related concerns.

But, while the underpinnings are theoretical, the aim of this work is to make a tangible difference to student employability. A key part of TESCEA involves working with university teaching staff to help them redesign courses to help students better prepare for the world beyond university. Course redesign workshops within TESCEA are busy, intense sessions that take place over many days. They facilitate lecturers to examine how their courses fit within a degree programme and build on one another to support a coherent learning journey towards the programme’s vision for its graduates. Lecturers map the key concepts in their courses, develop learning outcomes, assessment and teaching and learning strategies to both help students master subject content knowledge and equip them with broader critical thinking and problem-solving skills along the way.

The skills matrix is an important component of this work. Firstly, it facilitates development of course-level outcomes. For each of the concepts to be taught in a course, lecturers develop learning outcomes representing each of the six kinds of learning described above. They use the skills matrix to ensure that relevant skill categories are being pulled into the course-level learning outcomes. Secondly, at the lesson-planning level, teachers pull more granular skills, abilities and dispositions under each skill category into the class-level learning outcomes. They then design teaching and learning activities and assessment types that will support students in developing all learning outcomes, including experiential skills and dispositions.

“From the skills matrix, I was able to understand how can I make my students learn through creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. I took the dimensions of the matrix as viewpoints and data in it (bullet points) as views. So for each learning outcome, I used the views to choose how I want to achieve the outcome. The matrix empowered me with different views that exposed students to critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity skills.”
Lecturer, Mzumbe University, Tanzania

Reflections

Analysis of literature, understanding of need and developing a tool to make the connection between the theory and the practice is vital in a piece of work such as TESCEA where the intention is for impact to extend well beyond the timescale and geography of the project. And working across partners and countries brings depth to the work.

However, there were some challenges and lessons learnt:

  • There should be shared understanding and ownership of the work – Collaborative literature review and mapping to a framework is a long and complicated process. To work well, there need to be clear roles and realistic expectations about how time and resources are allocated, as well as shared understanding of the purpose of the work.
  • There should be shared understanding about definitions – To ensure consistency, it is important to check that everyone has the same understanding of general and perhaps often-used words and phrases.
  • Hands-on engagement with new models and ideas helps bring theory to practice – Busy workshop schedules can make it hard to bring in new ideas and workshop participants can feeling overloaded. The principle of ‘less is more’ and building in a lot of hands-on engagement can mitigate against these challenges.

The experience of developing and implementing our skills matrix within TESCEA has been useful. We are now at a point in the work where we can take stock of what worked well and what worked less well. This is important as we start to bring together the TESCEA approaches and learning from across the partnership to create an East African model.

Read the paper

Contact Joanna Wild for more information.

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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 East 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.

Joanna Wild

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