‘Where University Degrees Can Lead to Poverty’


By Misan Rewane, for This is Africa.


Christiana Ubah left school at 17 without prospects for further education, let alone a job. Born in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, she had completed secondary school but could not afford further studies.

But she was willing to learn; she had enthusiasm and a determined attitude. After a three-week employability skills training programme, she was placed in a retail sales job. She went on to manage the opening of the shoe store and then managed the store full-time. One opportunity led to the next and today she is not only an office manager at a real estate law firm but is studying real estate management part-time.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm in Nigeria, where inflated university degrees are all too often locking disadvantaged young people into cycles of poverty and underemployment.

Christiana’s case demonstrates the adage that a young person with a good attitude can be extremely successful even if they do not have a bachelor’s degree. She was hired for attitude — coachability, motivation, emotional intelligence — and trained for skills.

With over 20 million unemployed youth in Nigeria, young Nigerians are spending an increasing proportion of their twenties pursuing academic qualifications, rather than gaining work skills and experience to make them competitive in the 21st Century global marketplace. They are doing this on the savings of households living on $2-4 per person a day — families who are scrimping and saving and sacrificing so that one person can break out of these economic conditions and land a good job.

Of the 1.5 million who apply to university in Nigeria each year, only 300,000 get admitted. Not all of them graduate and for those that do, it takes them on average five years to get a job.

So what is fuelling this madness? Why are people paying too much for too many certificates that do not add value to their productivity in the workplace?

Employers’ increasing use of academic qualifications as a proxy for skills fuels the false dream that a bachelor’s degree from a broken tertiary education system is a stepping stone to a well-paying job.

Many employers do note that graduates are ill-prepared for the workplace – yet they still insist on a degree as a minimum job requirement. In fact, in some cases, it is the only requirement on job advertisements. This, despite the fact that four years spent in the average Nigerian university does not add many relevant skills for young people.

Poverty Degree

Beyond Nigeria, this is an African, and even a global problem. Up-credentialing (or credential inflation) locks already disadvantaged people out of economic participation. There is a disconnect between job prospects and academic qualifications, yet those who do not get them are all but guaranteed to be excluded from desirable jobs.

Education reform is necessary to make universities more useful to their graduates. In the meantime, alternate routes to employability could fill the need for both skilled workers and for jobs.

Some best-in-class firms across industries, from airline services to retail banking, have adopted a ‘hire for attitude, train for skill’ approach. This businesses have realised that they can train employees for the skills needed, but that training cannot change attitudes.

Admittedly, it is harder to measure for attitude and other key elements of job success when assessing potential employees. That does not mean we should not look for innovative ways to do so, from interviews to job simulations. For example, behavioural-based interview questions that help decipher how candidates have dealt with situations in the past can be helpful in assessing how they might react to stress or conflict.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs that require degree-acquired specialist skills at the entry level. However, the millions of jobs created by high-growth industries, such as hospitality and retail, not require the academic content taught in four year degree programs. These are the jobs that will absorb Africa’s 122 million new entrants into the labour force between now and 2020.

We need to start getting young people prepared to excel in these jobs, which still struggle to find skilled matches. If we cannot, the cycle of youth unemployment will only continue.

Young people should not opt out of higher education altogether. However, employers need to acknowledge the unfairness of locking an already marginalised population out of economic opportunities. Across the board, university prerequisites drive millions into the arms of a broken system that essentially sets them up to fail.

Examples such as Christiana’s show the results of innovative approaches to hiring and training, and that the investment pays off. Not only is she now putting herself through higher education, but she is also helping to support her sister’s post-secondary education. She proves that with the right mindset, skills and economic opportunities, Africa’s youth can be demographic dividends, not demographic liabilities.

 Misan Rewane is co-founder and CEO of West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE), whose mission is to increase incomes for unemployed youth in West Africa. She can be found on Twitter @misanrewane or @wavehospitality, and is also an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow (@AspenNewVoices).