Gown to Town: Strategies for Graduate Employment Readiness and Economic Growth – THISDAY Newspapers

By Alex Otti
As one whose own personal transition from gown to town years ago was quick and ultimately rewarding, this topic resonates quite well with me. And this is even more so because as I progressed from entry-level workplace employee to C-Suite leadership, I came to gain more perspective into the complexities of the transition. 
Let us start from what we already know. Officially, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is 33.3%. This data from the Bureau of Statistics translates to about 23.19m citizens without jobs. When you add to it our underemployment rate, you get a combined 56.1%. And when you consider that 70% of Nigeria’s population comprises people less than 35 years of age, you get a clearer picture of the demography mostly hit by our sorry situation. We have an army of young people, skilled and unskilled, without jobs!
My duty today is to set the tone for deliberations on strategies for promoting an entrepreneurial mindset and marketplace readiness in most Nigerian undergraduates. Fortunately, I addressed this issue sometime in 2017 (five years ago, for proper context) at Babcock university, where I had the privilege of delivering that year’s convocation lecture. I will draw generously from that speech because the issues that informed my address then did not magically disappear in the intervening years. They are still here with us as a country. Instead, they have even worsened. In 2017, the nation’s unemployment figure was 18%. It is almost double today. I had also warned then that Nigeria faced dire consequences if we did not grow the nation’s economy by at least 10% per annum over the next ten years. Well, we did not grow at anything near 10%  in any of the intervening years. We did not even get close to half. In fact, in one of the years, 2020, our growth was negative at -1.79%. But we understand; it was the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and many economies in the world struggled. But in 2018, the year before the pandemic, our growth was a meagre 1.92%; the following year, 2019, we grew at 2.21%, and in 2021, we grew at 3.65%. So we are not producing enough to absorb our humongous idle workforce. Most importantly, our population has been growing at over 3%  per annum.
An Inadequate Tertiary Education System
I have always insisted that what determines a nation’s progress is not its mineral resources, ethnic or tribal affiliations, or geographic location but its people’s quality. The difference between rich and poor nations contrasts the types of people living within their different geographic boundaries. Nigeria has remained a struggling country because it has incrementally betrayed its responsibility to educate its youth. Nigeria is one of the lowest spenders on education on the African continent.  
Wealthy nations have better-educated people and tend to attract such people to reinforce already exceptional talent. We can debate whether Harvard is an exceptional University, but what is not in contention is that Harvard attracts outstanding students, just like Oxford and Cambridge. Gifted students are attracted to Harvard and become gifted lecturers, who in turn attract gifted students. Which University in Nigeria today can lay claim to attracting the finest of Nigeria’s brains deliberately and consciously to build a school tradition of excellence that will attract independent funding? Most Nigerian universities, private ones inclusive, are funded in ways that cannot guarantee the excellence that the nation requires to forge ahead in an increasingly digital world, with technology proceeding at a pace Bill Gates once said was ‘faster than the speed of thought.’ The world of Tesla’s Elon Musk is certainly not the world the Nigerian educational system is preparing our youths for. We are talking of advanced robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), neuroplasticity, driverless cars, digital urban roadways, automated route-switching metro lines, and smart cities! The emerging world order is driven by intellect and creativity and no longer the dumb mining and trading of natural resources.  
But what is the Nigerian university lecturer’s place in this modern thinking? Can the average lecturer comfortably interrogate the issues around innovation and creativity in today’s world so they can make a meaningful contribution? I ask because our objective here is to produce tertiary education graduates with an entrepreneurial mindset and marketplace readiness. But the lecturers will teach the students and prepare them for today’s world, where only the rigorous application of intellect and creativity guarantees survival and excellence. 
Of course, lecturers do not employ themselves. The authorities within the institutions do. What particular elements are considered in the recruitment of lecturers? Academic excellence is a good place to start, and should always be given its pride of place, but should it end there? How about hunger for innovation, impact, and changing one’s corner of the world? Are these ignored in the course of lecturers’ recruitment? 
Ultimately, our interrogation falls on the government’s desk. How does the government ensure that the teachers we hire to teach our children in tertiary institutions can inspire them and prepare them for a competitive world? How often does the government assess lecturers and recommend/sponsor them for quality training and development programmes? How much does the government commit to academic research? In some tertiary institutions, lecturers are owed salaries for many months. How does such a teacher have the presence of mind to deliver classes that can inspire their students? 
How about the various leaderships of our tertiary institutions? How have the Vice-Chancellors and their management team members led their schools? Do they market their schools? Do they sell research? Do they even bother competing for the very best students? 
I believe, and with all due respect, that our universities have failed us so far. Nigerian universities have remained in the lower rankings in the World and Africa. For instance, in the 2022 edition of Times Higher Education Ranking, no Nigerian University made it to the top 400 universities in the world. That explains how fast the world is moving or how fast Nigeria is moving in the wrong direction. In this same report, the University of Cape Town in South Africa ranked 155th. 
In another report, the 2022 African University Ranking, which essentially agreed with the Times ranking, only 2 Nigerian universities made it to the top 40 in Africa. The first of those schools, the University of Ibadan (also ranked highest for Nigeria in the Times Higher Education Ranking), came fourth after three South African universities. 
Most Nigerian tertiary education curricula are a poor imitation of the study packs of western universities. Our universities lack the creative muse and the authentic homegrown feel that makes study instantly relevant to the local environment. Our graduates are not prepared for the real world. They lack an interface with their likely future work environment and falter from the start of their careers because of poor preparation.  
Furthermore, our universities need to be tailored toward solving evolving challenges. If power has become an albatross to us, what solutions have our eggheads proffered? Why have our universities not designed, marketed, and implemented alternative energy solutions? Why must we wait for Bill and Melinda Gates to fight malaria? With about 170 universities in the country today, we should feel highly scandalized by the ‘entitlement’ and ‘dependency’ culture we have encouraged. We should feel pained that we have to look abroad for solutions to local problems. Nobody can love us more than ourselves. Nobody can understand us better than ourselves. As far as foreigners are concerned, we are a great source of demand for their intellectual products. We are the consumption haven waiting for their production paradise.
But enough of the complaints. We need to determine the way forward from here. How do we raise graduates ready for the marketplace? How do we raise graduates with an entrepreneurial worldview? 
Below are some of my humble suggestions:
I am happy we have all the stakeholders here today, including President Goodluck Jonathan. He set up YouWin funds during his administration, from which young Nigerians accessed start-up funds for their dream business ideas. I agree that His Excellency is no longer in government. Still, I also know he has a vast network of friends and associates in government who can help implement the government side of our recommendations.
Also, I have just laid out some of the issues as I see them, and I know we will be breaking out into discussion sessions shortly. I hope to come up with more robust solutions to the issue we are addressing today, which is how we will raise graduates with a mindset that prepares them to either launch into the brave world of entrepreneurship or the marketplace. 
*a keynote address delivered by Dr. Alex Otti, Abia Labour Party governorship candidate, at the inaugural Gown-To-Town symposium organised by the Abuja Chapter of the University of Port Harcourt Alumni Association
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