As I watched the BBC Africa hidden camera footage showing university lecturers abuse their power, it confirmed to me what I already know: employers place too much emphasis on university degrees and grades and it is hurting the continent. Our education-to-employment system is so broken that some lecturers take advantage of the desperation of young people to possess a tertiary degree for fear they will be blocked out of the formal economy for the rest of their lives.

Over 90 per cent of formal entry-level jobs in Nigeria require these elusive degrees that are no prediction of competencies, especially in light of what we all know – which is that too often, these grades are distorted by coercion/control.

Given this reality, it has become a “do-or-die” affair to get a degree by any means because young people are told degrees and certifications are the “keys to the kingdom” rather than the competencies behind those degrees. Some educators take advantage of this warped system as it elevates them to demi-gods of the kingdom who have the power to make or break young people’s futures. This “quiet corruption” across the education-to-employment system begins at the basic education end where you have teachers who coerce students and parents to pay for their (the teacher’s) own afterschool lessons or study materials in order to get favourable grades or “support” during the make-or-break national exams…to secondary and tertiary levels where #sexforgrades and student extortion are commonplace, all the way to the employment end of the spectrum where desperate jobseekers are coerced into “paying to play”.

A colleague of mine once shared that in her private university in Benin, an estimated 50% of graduates paid to influence their grades/degree outcomes. Everyone knows the lecturers who accept or demand bribes, she said, and so from day one, you pick and choose your courses based on whether you intend to “pay to play” or “go it alone”.

This isn’t just an African phenomenon: you can easily find sex-for-grades news articles chronicling incidents in the US or even Singapore, albeit less endemic, or cases of the rich and famous paying their children’s way into university admissions. What’s universal across regions is the growing angst and anxiety that even though you can learn online most of the skills taught in traditional universities, that tertiary degrees are still the gateway to higher earning potential.

The way forward from here is to emphasize competencies over credentials.

We all heard Kiki Mordi open up about how sexual harassment prevented her from getting that degree. Gasp! Who would have thought an on-air-personality-turned-investigative-journalist doesn’t have a degree! And yet, she must have developed the competencies required to produce such stellar investigative journalism output through alternative means. What should matter are the competencies she has developed and not the lack of credentials.

Imagine if 90% of job descriptions didn’t block out the 90% of Africans who don’t possess a university degree or the “relevant work experience” – which are always the top two requirements – and instead focused on the required competencies to deliver on the job?.

It’s time to rethink and rewire our education-to-employment system so it starts to focus on competencies young people are developing inside (and mostly outside) of traditional classrooms and institutions and starts to screen them IN for those competencies instead of screening them OUT for lack of credentials (#CompetenciesOverCredentials). Employers and other “gatekeepers of economic opportunity” owe it to young people to design or adopt existing simple-and-cheap methods for screening based on competencies rather than use degrees as a proxy for capability.

I’ve seen how well this strategy can work. Since 2013, our Nigeria-based organisation, WAVE, has been “screening in” such hardworking young people regardless of their education background/pedigree and training them in the skills required to secure work, start a career and build a brighter future. Though the majority of WAVE’s 3000+ alumni do not possess a tertiary degree, their incomes more than double within one-year post-training as they transition into formal employment, entrepreneurship or further their education. Elements of WAVE’s screen-train-match model are already being replicated by public secondary and tertiary educators as well as private and social sector organisations to train thousands of young people in work-readiness skills annually.

WAVE is just one of many educators, employers, government enablers and youth who are part of a growing Ready4Work movement committed to growing access to skills development and economic opportunity for young people regardless of their education credentials. Indeed, the shift is happening globally as human-machine partnerships make it increasingly possible to evaluate candidates based on their capabilities rather than age, gender or education pedigree, but I would argue that nowhere faces the emergency need to leapfrog more than the African continent, which will have the largest potential workforce by 2030.

While of course it is important to work to expand access to tertiary education, we also owe it to the 90% who currently do not get access, to recognise alternative pathway programmes that are succeeding in developing these skills in young people despite not being degree institutions.

If we can achieve this, perhaps, the next educator who tried to coerce a now-not-so-desperate student or parent would be told to “keep their grades” because the student had actually developed the required knowledge /competencies and was confident that the average employer used inclusive hiring practices that would give her the opportunity to demonstrate her competencies over credentials, her skilling over schooling.

 

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