Network wants to make impact by providing 21st-century skills

Academics have stressed the importance of ensuring African graduates secure jobs after their studies, ideally linked to the expertise they have gained during their courses.

They spoke out at the second Annual Academic Summit, an international conference hosted by the Honoris United Universities (HUU) network of private universities, which was staged on both campuses of Tunisia’s Central University (Université Centrale), Tunis, and the Ariana, Tunis-based ESPRIT or Private Higher School of Engineering and Technology (Ecole Supérieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologies), from August 30 to September 2.

In the conference’s fourth session, faculty members from the Red and Yellow Creative School of Business, Cape Town, South Africa; the Moroccan engineering school (École Marocaine des Sciences de l’Ingénieur, or EMSI); Tunisia’s Collective Lab start-up incubator – part of the country’s Université Centrale; and FEDISA Fashion School, also based in Cape Town, discussed how studies can promote sustainable employment.

Tunisia is a case in point. In the second quarter of 2022, it has an unemployment rate of 15.3%. So, the sessions heard how its universities are developing strategies to assist students in obtaining good jobs.

Dr Jonathan Louw, group CEO of Honoris United Universities (HUU), the largest pan-African tertiary education higher education network, comprising 70 campuses operating in 10 African countries and 32 cities, with links to 190 European universities, involving more than 71,000 students, welcomed this trend.

Outcomes-focused education

He said in a keynote speech that his organisation’s goal was “ensuring that an education from an Honoris institution focuses on student outcomes and prepares the graduate for 21st-century employment”.

He later told University World News: “Employability is one of the six core pillars of impact reporting,” within the network’s impact reports – other pillars being networking, the quality of learning, innovation, communities and sustainability.

Honoris students have “achieved an 80% combined employability rate across the network”, claimed its latest assessment.

The main mission of the network is to “prepare young future leaders who can operate successfully in the world’s youngest and fastest-growing continent,” added Louw.

“Our flagship career centre in Tunis prepares students for the transition from academia to the workplace,” Louw told University World News, highlighting a service based at the Central University’s Collective Lab.

‘From zero to hero’

A key goal of the conference was to share good practice in how this is done. Also speaking to University World News, Carmen Schaefer, head of academics at the Red and Yellow Creative School of Business, noted how its students annually and formally present their business ideas and products at a school exhibition.

It hosts executives from the institution’s local industry partners to guarantee direct contact between students and potential future employers or sponsors.

Thus, the business school aims to turn its students from “zero to hero”, said Schaefer. This really matters in South Africa, where (as in many African countries), there is “a massive gap between the rich and the poor”.

Her school’s curriculum aims to change the social and economic situation of its students by giving them the chance to become employed in a well-paying job with prospects or start their own businesses.

The school also encourages students to consider this first position or business as a stepping-stone for progress: “It is dangerous if you think that your career can only go in one direction,” said Schaefer, with the school encouraging students to be open to all opportunities.

“A lot of our students want to have their path and their project set right after they graduate,” she noted, emphasising that they can succeed in diverse ways, with the school able to draw on graduate success stories to show how that can happen.

Entrepreneurship nurtured

Similarly, Dr Chaker Slaymi, director of the Tunis-based Collective Lab, told the summit about the need to nurture entrepreneurship and technical solutions to improve employability.

His organisation puts in place the necessary resources to assist project leaders in all aspects of launching their start-ups, he explained.

Such practical assistance is becoming increasingly common and Schaefer said she had been impressed by “the commonalities when it comes to working on employability in different institutions and universities among those present at the event”.

Zaheer Hamid, academic director at the MANCOSA business school, a Durban, South Africa-based institution that offers distance education, whose courses are designed to ensure they have high educational quality as well as promoting employability, stressed that MANCOSA’s participation in the Honoris network aided information-sharing and collaboration because the pan-African network includes institutions in South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritius.

Hamid said that “to advance the quality of education and to respond more favourably to students’ changing educational demands on the African continent, we need to work together”.

He said that Honoris universities and colleges are pursuing “a greater level of collaboration to create a greater level of efficiency that translates to ensuring that our students have a greater level of opportunity, mobility, access to a network, and become a part of a global student population”.

Building links with employers

Continuing efforts are being made by participating universities to meet employers’ market demands, being sensitive to the challenges and hardships facing business: “One needs to look with a critical eye at the extent to which these universities are applying the employability strategies and the efforts they have to make to maintain their goals,” he said.

In this regard, lecturers are the focus of these efforts, being encouraged to build and maintain industry relationships, “because the biggest investment is their ability and willingness to constantly engage with people that work in industry”, said Schaefer.

She said that such links take time to build – her institution has been developing the relevance and efficiency of its education for 20 years.

It “does take more time for them because they [teachers] have to meet these people” [business entrepreneurs and company owners], she said. When they do, businesses often voice real brand problems, whose solution may not fit the skill sets being taught at her school.

But Red & Yellow Creative School of Business graduates can help them in many ways: “We have to spend a lot of time with them coaching on how they can adjust their real-world problems to meet learning outcomes,” noted Schaefer.

At its closing session, conference participants “unanimously agreed that research requires an institutional commitment to increase output from the African continent and add value to the global awareness of Africa-based academic knowledge”, said an Honoris statement.

It added: “Further to the impressive current volume of research from each of our institutions in Africa, we look forward to more pan-African collaboration in sectors such as engineering, health, business and creative arts and fashion.”

TunisianMonitorOnline (University World News)

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