Is tertiary education still worth it?

By Dr Lucy Heady, Chief Executive Officer of the UK and Africa-based Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA)

As of 2017, sub-Saharan Africa had 9 million post-secondary students. By 2027, sub-Saharan Africa will move from 3% of the world’s student population in 2007 to 7%. Yet today many young people across the continent are losing faith in the value of education and their governments due to high unemployment. Research by Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) and Quilt.AI shows that a lack of jobs and a perceived lack of action by politicians are putting the enormous potential of this youth population at risk.

You might argue that the reality of high unemployment means that more education is a waste of time. Why bother studying for a job that doesn’t exist? We believe that better evidence on the issue can help answer this question. As discussed in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors in education, part of the problem comes from the mismatch between employers and educators, who live in parallel worlds, without communication or understanding. Research from the PwC network shows that 87% of African CEOs report difficulty finding employees with the right skills.

Building an effective tertiary education system in line with labour market demands can ensure young people have the skills for today’s economy. World Bank research shows that university and college education has the highest return across education levels. Effective tertiary education can also feed the future, producing graduates that can drive home-grown innovation and attract foreign investment.

On December 12th, world education leaders gathered in Dubai to discuss Youth, Skills and the Future of Work, one of the three themes of the summit. The hosts, Dubai Cares with Expo 2020 Dubai, raised the profile of education as critical to addressing African and global development priorities. ESSA used the RewirEd Summit as an opportunity to join up the worlds of policymakers, educators, employers and students. A provocative panel debate brought together these different perspectives to ask whether tertiary is still worth it amid the unemployment crisis.

ESSA believes that universities and colleges can harness the potential of the next generation, but that radical change is needed to bring their world into meaningful contact with the world of employers. Policymakers face a daunting task in pushing for this change: evidence and data are scarce and without understanding the same critical facts about the system, we are all working in the dark. Educators do not know the demands of the job market and struggle to link with the industry. Employers cannot get graduates with employable skills. Similarly, students have little information on what skills employers want.

Better evidence is needed to break through the impasse

ESSA is carrying out additional research to understand the needs of the faculty, the skills in demand by local labour markets, and cost-effective ways of increasing access without compromising quality. Investment is needed in the generation of evidence and platforms where this research can be shared and understood by everyone, employers, educators, policy-makers and young people alike. This will drive those with the power to work together towards the most effective strategies for improving the quality of education for young people.

For example, universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa need evidence to provide more career support services for their students. Faculty need to know the demands of the modern job market and form links to industry. ESSA contributes to increasing the employability of graduates by working with Education Collaborative in Ghana and Kepler in Rwanda to partner with African universities to support them to develop their career services and industry engagement strategies.

Employers are also part of the process, contributing to, and being an audience for the research. Employers themselves can be a driving force in contributing to a shared understanding that could transform tertiary education. As detailed in the latest GEM Report, they can provide information on the skills they expect from graduates and deepen their relationships with universities and colleges. Information access will also help young people make the right choices and ease the transition from education to work. Understanding the challenges in the current labour market will also help young people be realistic in their ambitions for their first step outside of formal education.

As world education leaders reflect on the RewirEd Summit, they must think creatively to solve the paradox of rising graduate unemployment at a time when advanced skills are increasingly in demand. They must step out of their worlds and find partners in other worlds to agree on what is needed to help the world’s fastest-growing youth population.

As part of their commitments, these leaders need to revamp policies and bolster investments to enable universities and colleges to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of the education they provide for young people. The challenge is a big one. However, investing in evidence, data and collaboration will give us the best chance of success.


Feature image credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch



  1. No matter what we do with tertiary education the gap between industry and education will always be there. In fact the gap between the skills wanted by the employers and the skills produced by the tertiary education will get worse. This reasons for this are quite obvious:
    1- Industry is more flexible than education when it comes to implementing new technology. Implementing new technology in industry saves money, including new technology in education costs money (both in using and training on).
    2- The length of time need to implement a change is much faster than in education. While at best scenario both industry and education should be applying a continuous development process, in industry adopting the new ways happens in a much shorter time than the time needed to update curriculum or qualification specifications.
    3- In the qualification based education (Degree, Diploma) the length of time needed to complete the qualification is too long that by the time the qualification is achieved (3/4 years + 1 years to find a job), a lot of what has been taught is rendered obsolete in the work place. This results in the graduate needing either retraining or at best upskilling when they start their first job after graduation.
    4- Now and more in future industry is seeking creativity and individualism (technology and innovation). The 20th century move towards complete standarisation which was a result of the automation revolution is disappearing. This is due to the introduction of artificial intelligence which allows the machine to react in a creative rather than standardized way. While at the same time education as a whole seeks conformity (one specification teaching one set of skills to all students on the course using set learning outcomes). Only at the research level in education where creativity is allowed.
    5- The cost of teaching a set of skills inside education institutes is much higher than the cost of teaching the same set of skills in the working environment.
    6- In the majority of the times the teaching staff in the education system have minimum or no real experience in using the skills they are teaching. The only exception is the apprenticeships. For example how many management professors have run a business or how many entrepreneurship lecturers have started their own successful business!
    And many other reasons ………

    In my opinion tertiary education should step away from job skills. Life skills, personality development, research and innovation should be the core of what tertiary education works on with the learners. Apprenticeships and on the job training should be the way to move forward with teaching the job skills.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I agree there will always be inherent challenges for educational institutions to both teach and understand the requirements of the modern workplace. We believe that if universities and colleges collaborate with employers, e.g. by using internships as part of degree courses or using adjunct professors still working in their field, this can be of enormous benefit to the employability of young people. What do you think?

  3. The aim of education is to develop the physical, emotional and intellectual faculties of young people. So that they grow up to become responsible adults with good knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. One of the skills they must possess is the ability to continuously learn new things.
    Is it the job of educators to provide skilled man power to industry? Any young person with a decent education must be accepted by industry and trained to the requirements of a particular industry.
    As E Serry states, tertiary education should step away from job skills. Another point to be kept in mind is that education policy makers are rarely educators.

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