What if we connected education to the needs of our economies?

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Apr 2, 2018

Across the globe, we observe a similar trend: students, irrespective of their individual needs and circumstances, are encouraged to pursue education as a means to gain employment and climb up the economic ladder. Yet what we see, time and time again, is that when education is disconnected from the needs of the economy, this promise falls flat.

The numbers aren’t adding up

Consider Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa. Of the roughly 10 million students who tried to get into university from 2010 to 2015, only a quarter were granted admission. But to what end? Data from Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics suggests that the unemployment rate for university graduates in Nigeria is no different than that for students with a primary or secondary school education. Yet, education in its current form is still viewed as the most viable path out of poverty.

What about Ghana, another West African nation? The situation is not much better in Ghana, often seen as a beacon of hope for African countries. Unemployment amongst graduates in the country is so high that graduates have come together to create an organization called, the Unemployed Graduates Association. Membership in this organization is growing rapidly, doubling in 2015 a few years after its founding. According to the National Labor Organization in Ghana, between 2011 and 2015, of the roughly 290,000 students that graduated from tertiary institutions, only 5,000 were absorbed into the formal economy. Yet again we see that education, in its current form, is still viewed as the most viable path out of poverty.

Perhaps it is just an African problem. What about India, a country that has branded itself as an IT-powerhouse? It turns out that the situation is not so different, as 60% of engineering graduates struggle to find employment.

I have found that this is not just an “education in a poor country problem.” In the United States, while our unemployment rate has come down from its high of about 10% in 2009 to approximately 4% today, the mismatch between a university degree and the job market is getting starker and starker. 44% of college graduates in 2016 were working in jobs that did not require a college degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In addition, student debt in the U.S. is at an all-time high at almost $1.4 trillion, making it more difficult for students today to rise above their economic circumstances.

In the European Union, the situation is similar. In Greece and Italy for instance, you have roughly a 50/50 chance of getting employed after graduating from a tertiary institution. Your odds are better in Spain and France where you have a 70% chance of getting a job after earning a degree. While these countries show better numbers than poorer nations, the pattern is the same. A college degree ain’t what it used to be.

Why is this the case, and what should we do about making education matter more?

At one point, education served to teach students relevant information that prepared them to participate in both their economies and their democracies. Unfortunately, many of today’s educational programs are failing in this regard. Students are undoubtedly expanding their minds and learning valuable skills that will help them grow as individuals, but these skills aren’t necessarily preparing them to participate in the 21st century economy. As economies evolve, the educational institutions must evolve with them to enable students to meet the demands of the economy.

We must be clear that this doesn’t simply mean that if there are coding jobs, we only teach students to be coders. Or if there are factory jobs, we only teach students to be factory workers. That would limit education’s power to shape the minds of future leaders. What it means, however, is that the skills required to maintain a thriving economy should be better connected to what students learn in schools.

Education serves many purposes—it teaches students to think critically, promotes cultural enrichment, and broadens students’ horizons. When connected with the needs of an economy, it can also prepare students to gain and maintain employment, and ultimately help them lead more productive lives. For that to happen, we must start by strengthening the connection between schools and employers. Only then will our educational institutions live up to their promise.

Efosa Ojomo is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Efosa’s work focuses on using disruptive innovation theory to fundamentally change the discourse in the global development community, thus enabling nations to engender their own path to long-term growth and prosperity.