University of the Witwatersrand: New age economy requires job-creating graduates

Institutions of higher learning are tasked with implementing entrepreneurial and innovative-focused programmes as these are skills considered vital in producing a generation of graduates that will speak to the current economic demands, create jobs and high levels of youth unemployment in Africa.

The role of higher education came into sharp focus during the panel discussion to commemorate Africa Day. Themed Science and Innovation: Tackling the unemployment dilemma, the virtual webinar held on May 25 featured speakers from various corners of the continent. The discussion was jointly hosted by the Transformation, Internationalisation and Partnership Committee (TIPC) in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits, the Department of Science and Innovation, the Human Sciences Research Council, and the Academy of Science of South Africa.

According to a 2015 report by the African Development Bank, one third of Africa’s nearly 420 million youth aged 15-35 are unemployed and discouraged. Another third is vulnerably employed, and only one in six is in wage employment.

The same report indicates that Africa’s youth population is expected to climb up in double digits to 830 million by 2050. Without sustainable solutions to combat joblessness, approximately 263 million young people will lack economic support in the system by 2025.

Keynote speaker Deputy Director-General at the South African Department of Science and Innovation, Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, questioned the role of the education system in promoting entrepreneurship, especially in the world’s youngest continent.

Moreover, he emphasised that tertiary institutions must ensure that the skills they are producing are relevant to our current economy.

“I am pleased that we are now focusing on entrepreneurship because we cannot afford to be the consumers of innovations and technologies coming from other continents. When we reflect on the big companies that are in existence today, they are started by young people in their 20s,” he said.

“If Africa is to [advance] in the next few years as one of the continents that have produced the big multinationals that are making a difference globally, we therefore [have to] focus on empowering our young people because they are the ones that are going to deliver that.”

According to Muofhe, the continent has finally woken up to realise that life does not come in “bundles of five years” and therefore needs to start thinking and planning long-term to avoid pushing more young people into poverty as unemployment levels continue to rise.

He says the talk Agenda 2063, which is Africa’s grand plan for transformation and political, social, and economic development – is important in setting the tone for creating a continent that will be a dominant player in the global space in the future. However, the Agenda will achieve its goals by capitalising on one of the continent’s greatest assets for growth – young people.

“I am excited about initiatives that have been launched through the department of science and innovation in South Africa. We have [recently] launched a programme called the innovation breach portal which creates a platform where entrepreneurs, innovators and funders can interact with our young people,” Muofhe added.

Vice-Principal for Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation at the University of South Africa, Professor Thenjiwe Meyiwa, reiterated the same views that the university sector should focus on preparing students for a labour market in which they will be actively involved in job creation.

“I hold that it is in the quality of the education and being cognisant of not only preparing our graduates for the current labour market as it presents itself but going beyond that to look at how we get them to be the active participants that are innovative, reinventive and that seek to build and make a contribution that is sterling,” she said.

“It calls for recalculation, looking further ahead and looking at long-term solutions that will have a social impact that will assist without favour.”

Dr Victor Konde, Scientific Affairs Officer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa noted the importance of inspiring creativity across African campuses.

“It is important that universities are entrepreneurial. For that purpose, we are looking at how we can get them to be natural incubators of talent,” he said.

He concluded that the teaching of entrepreneurship should not be exclusive to schools of management and engineering but be extended to the rest of the university population as all students require the exposure.