It was a joyful celebration. Proud parents and relatives cheered and ululated as nearly 15,000 students of Makerere University received diplomas and became graduates of Uganda’s internationally known university. Presiding over the ceremony was the university’s new Chancellor, Professor Ezra Suruma, who had just been installed days before.
An economist, banker, and academic, Prof. Suruma is well known from having served in several high level positions, including Minister of Finance, Senior Adviser to the President of Uganda on Finance and Economic Planning, and a Fellow in the prestigious Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Having written extensively on job creation, and employment, economic growth and stability, Prof. Suruma is ideally suited to address growing concerns throughout the world that institutions of higher education are not adequately preparing students with skills that match the needs of the market. After all, who better to address the needs of the market than a person who ran the entire economy!
This gap between skills and need is prevalent throughout Africa, but for the Ugandan government, addressing the skills gap is a major priority. A large skills gap often results in university-educated graduates remaining unemployed. In Uganda, with the highest percentage of youth population in the world, the vast number of students puts a further burden on capacity in the education system and the ability for the economy to create new jobs.
The government has instituted several initiatives aimed at enhancing skills for new students and retraining previous graduates who are unemployed. These initiatives include enhancing curriculum, creating new institutions, and teaching specific skills that are needed in Uganda.
At a recent event marking the anniversary of Uganda declaring universal primary education, President Yoweri Museveni announced that youth who lacked marketable skills could go back to school
Noting that some youth have remained unemployed because of the courses they took, he told the crowd, “We want to create a fund where you can say that I did Greek and Latin and since there are no people who need Greek, I can get skills to do metal work,” the President told the gathering.
Museveni also promised to support innovations in ICT created by Ugandan youth, but also challenged digitally focused youth to support regional integration, as that would widen the market for innovations.
One of the most important recent developments is the heightened focus and priority given to business, technical, vocational education and training (BTVET). The government has redoubled investment in BTVET as a means to train youth with the technical education required by a growing and transforming economy. In addition, there are efforts to equip those who have left school early, graduates, and the unemployed with marketable skills. To date, 90 districts have at least one BTVET equipped to provide quality training.
The government has also made great strides in increasing capacity. This has been done by such effort as liberalizing admissions to include private students and the implementation of a student loan scheme, and several measures aimed at creating gender balance at all levels of education. These efforts have paid off, with total enrollment increasing from 137,000 in 2011, to 156,000 in 2014.
Offering quality higher education will continue to be a priority in Uganda, but there is also a reality unique to Uganda. No matter how much capacity increases, the looming youth bulge will soon have that enhanced capacity filled far beyond the limit. There will be challenges, but by aligning skills with jobs, retraining to close the skills gap, and continuing to increase capacity, Uganda’s youth will benefit from the country’s higher education offerings. And as the new Chancellor at Makerere University knows, that benefit will translate into economic development for all of Uganda.