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Leon Ayo, managing director of Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa offers solutions that could offer Higher Education Institutions the ability to produce employable graduates.

Higher education plays a key role in modern society. According to a June 2000 report by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the sector has “immense potential to contribute to the consolidation of democracy and social justice, and the growth and development of the economy”. The report goes on to say “the overall well-being of nations is vitally dependent on the contribution of higher education to the social, cultural, political and economic development of its citizens”.

But universities world-wide are facing unprecedented challenges, from funding pressures through to large-scale reform and private-sector competition. In South Africa especially, our tertiary institutions have to be all things to all people. They aim to produce world-class leadership and research, but also graduates with the skills required by our growing economy. They often also find themselves needing to address broader social challenges, student poverty being a major issue leading to frustration and social unrest.

Whereas universities used to be the preserve of the academic elite, attracting 5 to 10% of our population, our government now desires that 50% of South Africans obtain a university education. But are there enough jobs for the graduates stepping out into our job market? High unemployment among new graduates is a world-wide phenomenon – in the USA, for example, a student can be spending $350 000 on a tertiary education, and still be washing dishes at Starbucks.

What can be done to address the challenges facing higher education in our country? In my view, universities should consider the following:

  • Regular think-tanks should be convened between the business and tertiary education sectors to determine the skills required for business growth and economic prosperity. Universities are often pre-occupied with ‘vanity’ status – believing their main role to be producing global leaders. We believe they should become more responsive and less introspective.
  • South African universities should partner with their international counterparts, exchanging not only programmes, but also students, exposing them to international perspectives. This will not only raise the profile of our institutions globally, but will enhance the ability of graduates to find suitable employment.

  • The demand for university leaders who have corporate and commercial experience is increasing globally. Universities are complex organisations facing a multitude of challenges, and often require leadership with a wider range of skills than those generally found in tertiary institutions. A model including both academics, who can oversee research excellence and continued thought leadership, and business executives, who can take care of day-to-day operations, may well be one worth considering.
  • With new technologies enabling online courses, I believe we need to accept that not everyone will be physically entering the hallowed halls of academia to obtain a tertiary education. Many school leavers will want to get into the job market without delay, and with the rise of online learning and ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs), is it perfectly possible to fit in a degree alongside a career.

The dynamic sector of higher education touches everyone’s lives by delivering economic prosperity and promoting social cohesion. Yes, there are manifold challenges facing our higher education institutions. But with challenges come opportunities, and I believe those universities who can to capitalise on these will be the ones able to fulfil their role in modern society of producing not only the next generation of world-class leaders, but also the much-needed skills relevant in today’s marketplace.

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Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the CEO of Odgers Berndtson South Africa based in Johannesburg. He works within all industries and sectors in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Previously he was a partner in Odgers Berndt...

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