I attended a series of breakfast meetings convened by the European Union who have been exploring the mismatch between our education system and the needs of industry. On the one hand we produce thousands of graduates every year that cannot get jobs, yet employers complain that they cannot find suitable candidates to fill the available vacancies.
There are several basic issues contributing to this state of affairs. Young people are not being educated appropriately for the market opportunities: we may train several thousand social science graduates but if the market needs engineers there is a mismatch. If we are training young people to university level but the market needs heavy goods vehicle drivers, welders or plumbers, there is a mismatch. The chairman of the Oil and Gas Chamber of Commerce pointed out in a recent meeting that when we begin the construction of the pipeline we will need 2,000 trained heavy goods vehicle drivers, but we have only trained twenty.
Another issue is that of standards. The oil and gas industry has very stringent standards that are applied internationally. It does not matter whether the oil is being extracted from Texas or Hoima the standards are the same. But in Uganda we have our own ‘Ugandan’ standards, which we feel are OK. If a piece of welding is done according to Ugandan standards we are generally happy with it, but if a Ugandan welder has not been trained to international standards he will still not get the job. This is where government should have come in several years ago and facilitated vocational training to international standards, but the response has been sluggish.
Apart from the need for training for specific professions and vocations there is another more fundamental problem with our educational system. A person who has passed a primary degree should have achieved an internationally recognized benchmark and should be good material to be trained as a manager, or a sales person, or administrator through ‘on the job’ training. This is what employers are finding frustrating because most graduates arrive with no initiative, few social skills, no focus and ambition, very poor problem solving skills and a poor value system. Although he was desperate to get the job, he quickly gravitates to mediocrity and becomes a liability to his employer. He is also supposed to have certain abilities on paper, such as computer skills, but these are often found to be theoretical.
Ugandans are not innately lacking in IQ or ability, so why are we producing so many dull graduates? The education system appears to be sapping their potential, not fulfilling it. By the time these keen young people have been put through the ringer of seven years of school to UPE, then another six to A levels and another three at university, they have had all the keenness and initiative knocked out of them.
The system is only designed for cramming to pass exams. It is a knowledge-based system, which requires cramming and regurgitating knowledge in order to pass. The system does not teach self-reliance, problem solving, it does not inculcate a thirst for learning, for reading and understanding. It teaches theoretical knowledge, which in many cases the student does not know how to apply. The values taught are in line with the view that children should be seen and not heard, rather than encouraging a child’s natural curiosity and developing this into critical thinking. When such a young person hits the real world, he becomes an employee who has no spark and needs to be instructed in every task.
With the development of the Internet, and artificial intelligence, the employment needs of the world are rapidly changing and the international education system is adapting to preparing students to become lifelong learners. There is no longer lifetime job security and the education system has to train people to be innovators, to work from home, and prepare them for change jobs. But in Uganda we are failing either to prepare people for the jobs, which do exist, or to give them the mindset, which makes them an asset to employers.