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Opinions of Friday, 17 August 2012

Columnist: Attah, Maximus

Let’s Stop Blaming Our Graduates

By Maximus ATTAH Paulo Freire in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed lamented the plight of the oppressed people by the dominant paradigm as well as the flawed educational models, which teach students of developing world educational institutions how to become the best parrots without knowing how to solve problems.

In that book, Freire noted that the developing world educational system confers a status of infallibility and omniscience on the teacher while on the other hand, the student is seen as a mere receptacle who accepts every thought or proposition from the teacher without questioning the merits in the teacher’s discourse. The author compared and drew a parallel between the behaviour of the teacher and the student and said the teacher-student relationship is seen as that between a customer of a bank and a normal savings or deposits accepting bank.

The teacher (lecturer) acts as the depositor (customer) and the student serves as the bank, accepting the deposit without raising a finger.

Enter Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s charismatic founding father whose book, from Third World to First bore it all out on the very foundations behind Singapore’s unbelievable success story. First of all, Singapore, once an integral part of the larger Malaya, today’s Malaysia, is a city state, so the societal and cultural dynamics in that country cannot necessarily compare and fit in with the rather complex and ethnically diverse Ghanaian society. But there are a few lines in Mr Yew’s account of the Asian Economic Boom worthy of note.

The former Singapore prime minister questions the reasons behind taking (or rather sticking to) the colonial prescriptions for our educational curriculum. As he aptly described it in his meeting in Accra with Dr Kwame Nkrumah in the chapter titled, Inside the Commonwealth Club, Mr Yew said, “…by 1966, Osagyefo (Redeemer), as Nkrumah was called, had recovered enough of his bounce to give me dinner with some of his senior ministers and a bright young vice-chancellor of his university. This man, Abraham, was only about 30 years old, had taken a First in Classics at Oxford and was a fellow of All Souls’ College. Nkrumah was very proud of him. I was impressed, but wondered why a country so dependent on agriculture should have its brightest and best to do Classics – Latin and Greek”.

Drawing some useful lessons from the above two very influential authors, the debate about the relevance of our educational curriculum for our developmental goals did not begin today. Lee Kwan Yew was speaking in Accra in 1966 while Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in 1968. But the observations in those two books are even more critical to today’s discourse that they have ever been.

Since independence, the educational authorities have been playing the ostrich. The students have sat on the fence and as for the politicians they have only specialized in reforming the educational reforms – at least that is the evidence available since the overthrow of the Nkrumah regime. The employers on the other hand can also be described as looking for the non-existent graduates to employ.

The employers pretend sometimes to be looking for the brightest brains and the most experienced hands. Experience however is not necessarily tied to the number of donkey years spent on a desk. Some experience can be gained by doing the same thing over time but relevant experience should be acquired with a blend of a study of new industry trends as well as refresher training coupled with all the new media tools that are helping in the boom of today’s successful economic models Ghana wants to copy.

Look out for a job advert in a typical Ghanaian newspaper and the requirement for the vacancy seems to dwell more on the number of years spent on the job than the right skills set, attitude, age, and a sound educational qualification, to match. The more fashionable way of placing the advert these days is to make the advertiser anonymous by hiding the organization’s name.

Some advertisers even outsource the selection process to consultants – the aim of which I believe, is to introduce objectivity and fairness in the selection process. Some of the consultants put out the ads, a candidate who is doubly sure of his/her experience, attitude and aptitude, skills set, educational qualification and years of experience under the belt, applies for the job. The regular response from some of these human resource (HR) out-sourcing firms is the cliché “…note that only shortlisted applicants will be invited for interview”. The job applicant waits for year on end and the rest is history.

As for the para-state institutions their adverts have become, as a frustrated graduate aptly put it, formality. The jobs are advertised. Yes. There is an avalanche of letters from the teeming members of the ‘unemployed graduates association’ and even other members of the ‘unemployable graduates association’. The overwhelmed HR managers would more often than not, ask that those letters be touched, sent to the archives, or simply shredded! Only some ‘lucky’ lots among the sea of applicants get invited for interviews. As to what factors went into the selection process, only providence can tell.

A very reputable entrepreneur used to say that Ghanaian graduates are not employable. Although there might be some wisdom in that assertion, particularly because he once successfully led a multinational manufacturing and distribution chain, there are stories of mysterious recruitments in some blue chip Ghanaian companies as well as some multinationals, including the very organization the man once headed.

How can we explain how some of the best brains who possess all the winning attitudes don’t even get invited for aptitude tests even after jobs have been duly advertised and the applicants submitted all the necessary documents? How does a Ghanaian conglomerate explain away the fact that some of the best students don’t get selected for aptitude tests in their organizations?

There is a story of a young woman who graduated with very good Master’s degree at the age of 25. Upon seeing an advert from a giant Accra-based manufacturer and distributor, she applied. But to her utter disbelief, she was not even invited for the ‘mass’ aptitude test which was later organized. She was even shocked further when she later discovered that not only must there have been some hidden hands in this nauseating and illusive job search in Ghana but that maybe, the employers must not necessarily have been looking for the smartest and brightest after all.

There is definitely a problem on all four fronts. First of all, the educational system has not helped very much as we are still carrying with us the vestiges of colonial education which teaches us largely how to be dependently subservient. The employers have sat on the fence without trying to help imbue acceptable industry culture in graduate training through the sharing of work place culture and ethos as well as the provision of practical industrial attachment to the students. As for the politicians, a reputable development expert has aptly said that if the population becomes educated and equipped with relevant tools, they would no longer allow themselves to be taken for granted by the polity. So the politician as abundant evidence has shown only offers palliatives towards improving education in the country. The fourth is that the students are also refusing to strive for more than is being offered them in the choked classrooms and lecture theatres.

While the educational authorities are pretending that everything is fine, employers are on the fence and blaming everybody but themselves. The politicians are also worsening matters by not helping in obtaining academic independence for the country – which can help in imbuing the right blend of aptitude, intellect, and a service to country attitude in today’s graduate.

It is also true that not only are today’s graduates not ‘unemployable’ but the ‘available’ jobs are not sufficient enough to absorb the teeming graduates that the plethora Ghanaian tertiary institutions are producing. And in a society which is largely built on patronage, where the crude form of reference (whom you know) is the order of the day, employers who do not deliberately introduce fairness in their recruitment processes will continue employing the unprepared and ill-trained graduates. By opening up the process and making sure that the HR consultant doesn’t get the chance to ‘fix’ people the employer might not need, organizations can be sure to get job seekers who have the poise and all the other relevant tools ready for work.

In sum, there must be a fit between educational training and employment. The educational institutions cannot go it all alone. There should be a collaborative effort between the training institutions, the state, and employers. As Lee Kwan Yew put it, if we believe agriculture is the way to go, let us provide all the practical tools for the universities and other training institutions to ensure a complete empowerment of the graduates. On the other hand if we believe the extractive industries hold the keys to unlocking our under-development code, let us provide the foundations for acquiring those skill sets right here in Ghana. The students must also go the extra mile to acquire other analytical and presentation skills that can make them ready to fly.

Unless all of the above are done, the ostrich game will continue and a day will come when all employers will realize that the ‘whom you know’ web or culture has drained their vital investments because they have not necessarily put in the mechanisms that allowed the best and brightest to get in. That is when we would realize that opening up the space might have brought in the best candidates who are truly ready to help us return the best value to our stakeholders. Email: