Why academia might have failed businesses

A professor and her students use laptops during a lecture in the classroom. [Getty Images]

The circular economy is one of the emerging sectors that a regional business body has detailed the lack of relevant skills which has put the academia on the spot.

While lack of funding has been the defense by the academia which they noted as a responsibility of the industry, the East African Business Council (EABC), the region’s private sector lobby, has noted lack of alignment between the development goals set by East Africa Community and the continent at large and the industry.

This is unlike what is happening in other regions, particularly in the developed world.

As a result, the region cannot maximise its trade potential that already exists under the EAC and may lose more in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that is being implemented.

EABC Executive Director John Bosco Kalisa, while speaking during a meeting between the academic and the industry, detailed how universities are yet to align their curriculum to the priorities of the AfCFTA.

He explained that in AfCFTA four value chains have been identified namely: automotive, logistics and transport, pharmaceutical and agro-processing.

“Those are the value chains that will transform Africa but where is academia within those value chains. that is the question. That is why we say co-creation (between industry and academia) must be aligned with development,” he said. “It is through education that we can be productive.”

Mr Kalisa spoke of a challenge they faced seeking a specialist in the circular economy after unveiling the program. The intention was to make this sector as lucrative for the region as what Southern African Development Community (SADC) where circular economy is a Sh650 billion ($5 billion) industry.

This is also informed by the fact that 40 per cent of what is produced in the region goes to waste.

“But we could not find the skills within our universities that are offering circularity or how we move from a linear economy to circular usable.  We found complete lack of knowledge and expertise in that area,” he said.

Mr Kalisa pointed out that today, everything that happens globally has an aspect of environment mitigation or adaptation.

“You find that our universities are just following the convoy but are not actively in co- creation by sitting with industry and understand what is that demand shift,” he said.

He added that universities should monitor these demand shifts and changes in consumer habits.

Away from circular economy, Mr Kalisa said the potential of the digital economy in the region has also not been maximised yet advancements are happening daily.

This is notwithstanding that the global approach to development challenges is 3D: digitisation, demographic development and demographic shifts.

“Digital economy contributes 15 per cent to the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is growing three times more than the normal trade of goods and services. How are we embracing digitisation and demographic shift and how are we integrating these changes in the circular economy?” he posed.

Needed skills

Mr Kalisa also raised the issue of old curriculum which he said contributes to the lack odf needed skills in the industry.

“I was with the Minister for Labour of France who shared that every five years they change their curriculum to suit the needs of the industry. Here it can take 20 years without changing it,” he said.

Prof Migai Akech, Professor of Law at The University of Nairobi, who was part of the discussion accompanied by The University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor Prof Stephen Kiama, insisted that if the industry wants to benefit from these skills from learning institutions, it must as well invest.

“The problem of the industry is that you want to reap where you have not sowed,” he said. “You will not get partnerships with universities without funding.”

He addressed the issue of the old curriculum saying to produce a new one, research has to be done.

“You cannot design a new curriculum without doing the research. And you cannot do the research without the funding,” said Prof Akech. “The creation of knowledge is about experimentation and speculation. You cannot experiment or speculate is you do not have the time and resources.”

Prof Kiama, the UoN Vice-chancellor, said universities play a critical role of imparting knowledge to students.

“It is important to help them think about innovation and solutions. And the industry is important in this role. That way, we will not only make them be absorbed faster into the job market but also create employment,” he said.

University education

According to the Skills Needs Survey 2023 by the Federation of Kenya Employers, at least seven in 10 enterprises have to train their employees on the job due to the skills gap.

“Most hard-to-fill vacancies requiring a TVET skill level are in architecture, building and construction (36 per cent), engineering (30 per cent) and transportation, distribution and logistics (48 per cent) while those that mostly require first-level university education are in information & technology (77 per cent) and finance and business management (71 per cent),” the survey reads.

“Most hard-to-fill vacancies requiring a master’s degree qualification are in legal (20 per cent) while those that mostly require doctorate qualification are in science and mathematics (eight per cent).”

The survey agrees that the industry needs to play a role in the development of the curriculum.

“By incorporating employers in curriculum development and training through attachments, internships and offering apprentice opportunities; more graduates will have the industry-demanded skills, thus helping in bridging the existing gap,” the survey says.

Dr Gaspard Banyankimbona, Executive Director Inter-University Council of East Africa, said there is a number of best practices that are happening in the continent that can be replicated or customised which some players in the space may not be aware of.

Innovation and research

He gave an example of Zimbabwe which he noted that the country’s ministry in charge of higher education is the office that also registers companies.

“They are getting a one per cent (levy) from those industries to make their innovation and research work. They are empowering universities,” he said. He said the country’s education doctrine referred to as education 5.0 goes beyond the three traditional roles of universities which are: teaching, outreach and research, and engaging in innovation and commercialisation of those inventions.

“This is doable in Africa and we can make it,” he said.

Dr Banyankimbona said they have been tasked with coming up with a university-industry collaboration strategy and have collected views from the learning institution. They will be doing the same for the industry who will also share what they expect from learning institutions.

He said at the university level some solutions may not require a change of programmes which he noted is a long process and costly.

“There is this new approach of micro-credential where you target exactly the skills you need (as an industry) and we organise courses. Of course, we are not good at business but we can organise short courses and universities can make money. Universities can go to different industries and determine what skills they need for the development of these courses,” he said.