The primary function of education is to equip a society with the intellectual manpower to effect change and drive industries, stimulating innovation and creating opportunities for the future. Nigeria is faced with a serious challenge: a large percentage of our youth are unemployed, while employers are constantly searching for skilled employees to no avail. The situation begs the question: are we aligning the educational system with the needs of the labour market to take our country, and our continent, to the next level?

Nigerian secondary and tertiary institutions have important roles to play in preparing students for professional life. The curriculum for secondary education seems adequate, however, the measure of quality has been reduced to strictly academic concerns. This trend is evident not only in public schools but also in private schools. Our educational system lacks robustness as it is largely geared towards a narrow focus. In the majority of schools, the emphasis is on maths and English, overlooking international languages and extracurricular activities such as music, sports and the arts.

Our educational system leans heavily towards academics and learning by rote, leaving little room for initiative. I fear this may produce a set of graduates who are unable to think outside the box and who struggle with problem solving in real life. We are producing graduates who may not have skills such as creative problem solving, adaptability and initiative.

After secondary education, a student should have the choice between a vocational institute and a university. This was one of the main objectives of the 6-3-3-4 educational system, in which individuals had the opportunity to move on to vocational institutions after nine years or continue their academic journey. The dearth of vocational institutions, however, forces everyone to aspire to tertiary education. Combined with the proliferation of public and private schools churning out more and more students, this systemic oversight places pressure on university course capacity with implications on teaching quality, as well as unmet demand. Reform of the higher education system must restructure degrees and vocational qualifications to ensure the skills acquired are related to the needs of the economy.

Tertiary institutions have witnessed some improvement in recent years. However, challenges that range from frequent strikes to a lack of funding have plagued the university system for years. The majority of youth who get absorbed by tertiary institutions are trained with a theoretical or academic emphasis. Therefore, they may not be equipped with relevant competencies in order to be employable, further exacerbating the problem of youth unemployment. Another major challenge we face is the passive outlook of regulators, who are slow to set higher standards so that our graduates can compete with their peers globally. Curriculum reviews are not done as regularly as required. This needs to be addressed based on employers’ opinions and economic emphasis to ensure that industry’s needs are met.

Furthermore, specialist institutions and courses need to be designed to address the labour needs of certain sectors. Efforts are under way, and the AABS, for example, was able to bring together a consortium of schools to address the shortage of skills in agribusiness. Aligning education with labour market needs is the only way to ensure growth and sustainability in every segment.

To enhance the quality of our labour market we all must work together – government, regulators, private sector and all other stakeholders. Government policies need to be flexible and progressive, regulators need to set international standards and the private sector needs to invest in a more sustainable manner. I propose that all stakeholders in the educational system embrace a teaching style that reinforces theoretical knowledge with real life cases, simulations and discussions.

Sometimes we need to work backwards to arrive at the answer. Once our policies are education friendly and high standards have been set, we will be on the right path to aligning the educational system with the needs of the labour market, thus bridging the gap between the tailored demand and supply of labour.