“The light bulb moment was how it got us to rethink our role in the employability space.”
Interview with Jackline Chibai, Director, Strategy and Quality Assurance Services, Strathmore University in Kenya
Jackline Chibai, Director of Strategy and Quality Assurance at Kenya-based Strathmore University, discusses the university’s approach to employability, the problem of skills mismatches in Africa, and what the pandemic forced them to confront about teaching employability skills. Strathmore recently completed an assessment by Vitae, an innovation of IFC that helps higher education institutions improve the employability of their students.
How great a problem is skills mismatch in Kenya and Africa and which economic sectors does it most affect?
There is a very significant mismatch and gap. Most universities churn out a lot of humanities courses for professions such as accountants, managers, and sales people, but we lack critical skills for professions in sectors such as agribusiness, manufacturing, extractives and so on, industries with the greatest potential for economic growth in the country. In the agricultural sector, which accounts for 34 percent of Kenya’s economy, many companies cannot find anyone to fill the gaps that they have. In the last 10 or 15 years, most of our diploma-level colleges have been turned into universities so they are developing a lot of graduates who will be managers of enterprises that do not even exist because we don’t have the actual artisans—the mechanic, the plumber, the electrician. This puts us in a dangerous position because either these skills become very expensive, or you have poorly skilled people doing the job.
What forms of work-integrated learning do your students receive to make them ‘business ready’ when they graduate?
Our overall strategy is based on developing the ‘whole-sum individual’, someone who is going to be a change agent that can work in any part of the country or the world. Our curriculum has entrepreneurship elements and workplace experiences embedded. We also have challenge-based education where the student environment mimics the work environment, so they work in teams, toward solving an actual problem, and they do research that involves industry and their community. Students must complete 320 hours of work placement, their performance is assessed, and we receive feedback from employers. We also have ‘service-based learning’ where student must volunteer in communities and give 250 hours of their time.
What other ways do you connect your students with employers? Any future plans?
This is something we have always cherished and is embedded in our DNA. When our students begin, they are offered a mentor who eases them into university and discusses their personal development. We recently launched a new service that focuses on their final years, when we will link the student with mentors who are usually someone working in industry in the area they are studying. That person prepares the student for life in the workplace. We are leveraging our alumni a lot with this.
How do you teach entrepreneurship skills?
First and foremost, entrepreneurship is embedded in the university’s strategy, where our vision clearly articulates our desire to become a leading entrepreneurial university. The vision translates into our teaching and learning outcomes, where entrepreneurship is embedded in the curriculum. Secondly, the university provides the students with a student marketplace on campus held every Thursday, where students can showcase what they are doing in business—which also provides them with a one-on-one experience in selling. Thirdly, we have an active e-commerce platform developed and managed by students. Last but not least, the university encourages entrepreneurial activities by providing incubation services through Ibiz, Ilab amongst others.
What are some big lessons the pandemic is teaching us, including on employability?
One of the key things is recognizing how the way we work is changing. People are working from home, they are interacting more on virtual platforms like Zoom, so our students have to be equipped with these tools and skills. We have also learned that you cannot teach remotely for three hours, you must give breaks, put students in little groups, do things in bite sized portions, like how YouTube and LinkedIn do. Access to a laptop or mobile device that can access the internet is the biggest determinant to whether one has access to education or not. The pandemic has really underscored the importance of something we had taken for granted: access to affordable high-speed internet. The university has always had high speed internet connection, however during the pandemic, our ICT team has made improvements on this. At Strathmore, our students get a laptop when they join the university. To ensure internet connections during the pandemic, we arranged for our students to get subsidized internet bundles to be able to attend online learning. The students who already had WiFi in their homes could donate their bundles to students who could not afford it. Governments, donors, and universities need to realize that this is no longer optional, it is a basic requirement for all students.
The shift to digital also seems to have forced universities to rethink how they deliver education.
Yes, we have learned that the competitive environment is changing for universities. Today’s students prefer to learn at their own pace, from their own sources—YouTube is their teacher— and they want a quick turnaround on their assessment as everything is at the tip of their fingers. So, whereas a computer degree could take you four years in a structured university environment, a young person can google a course they want and learn it in three months, maybe from a university in a different part of the world. Now they ask: ‘why do I have to do a four-year degree, why can’t I choose what is suitable for me?’ The big challenge for universities is how to remain relevant in that space.
How are students adapting to being more online?
We see now more than ever, from the student’s perspective, that time management can be a major challenge, especially in this age where they are juggling several tech gadgets and social media platforms that can distract them. They need support, including psychological support. A different set of problems presents itself than when I was a student. A lot of the students have social anxieties and don’t understand why they are unable to manage their time. It is important to prepare them for this in the future work environment, which will involve technology.
What was one thing that stands out for you from the Vitae assessment?
The lightbulb moment was how it got us to rethink our role in the employability space. Universities can no longer sit back and wait for the government to make policy—we must partner with them and lead the way in the discussion around employability. Considering that we are now undergoing a fourth industrial revolution where technology is leading the way. Universities must also contribute to social innovation where they help solve problems facing their communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in April 2021