One of the challenges threatening the quality of Zimbabwe’s tertiary education is the increasing absence of internship opportunities for college and university students.
The majority of students are graduating without going through internship or attachment with organisations relevant to their studies. A major reason for this situation is the demise of formal companies which used to offer internship positions for students. On the other hand, the formal education system still assumes there is a formal industry where students can be attached for learning practice.
The formal education system seems reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the informal sector is now the biggest source of knowledge to which students should be attached for meaningful learning.
Internship and outreach programmes linking college and university students with the informal and rural sectors are long overdue. ICTs can come in to support knowledge generation pathways and opportunities where interns learn from fellow youth in rural enterprises rather than continue dreaming of learning from a formal company or organisation.
Meshing formal education with Communities of Practice
We need to develop a culture of investing our education in different Communities of Practice (CoPs). At the moment, a common trend is for formerly educated young people to slowly move away from their areas of origin.
The formal education system has been designed in such a way that college and university graduates end up in urban areas where there is formal employment in private companies or government institutions. Ultimately, rural areas are drained of innovations and skills as young people are lured to urban areas to become part of formal institutions.
All formerly educated youth want to be formerly employed because that is what they have been educated to believe. This is in spite of the fact that getting internship in a formal organisation limits the scope of innovation since new ideas are often not accommodated. Most private companies do not want their sources of stability to be disrupted by new ideas.
Since the formal education system tends to deny students opportunities for innovation, it is difficult for youths to start a new innovation when they are already out of college or university when they could have done so while at school. With the collapse of big formal companies, most university students fail to get attachment and employment thereafter. Those who graduate without having gone for internship or attachment have no clue about the demands of their professions and therefore become unemployable until after a long traineeship.
The importance of
The distribution of colleges and universities around the country should speak to the development of communities where these institutions are established. This can be done through outreach programmes for various formal educational fields. Social science students can conduct their research on social issues in surrounding communities.
Those studying agriculture can work with smallholder farmers and irrigation schemes while those studying engineering can introduce their knowledge into engineering fields such as road and dam construction at community level. Medical students can work with local herbalists and doctors to come up with localised pharmaceutical innovations.
Veterinary scientists can work with local livestock farmers to create a blend of veterinary products and solutions. This practice will create a platform through which local knowledge and academic knowledge enrich each other for the benefit of everyone including communities.
Such an approach creates a platform for innovation unlike the current scenario where students try to learn from established companies with rigid products, policies and operational procedures.
Connecting formal education with Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and rural areas creates enough scope for innovation among people in the community with schools and school leavers also participating in research conducted by university students.
This becomes a very innovating way of transferring knowledge. School leavers who work with veterinary scientists end up becoming paravets, able to identify and treat basic livestock diseases rather than weigh for veterinary officers each time there is an outbreak of livestock diseases.
Those who work with agronomists become empowered to blend their own knowledge with that from formal agronomy, resulting in a rich fusion of knowledges. Taking a cue from the ministry of higher education where teachers on practice are paid an allowance, allowances can be extended to other fields so that they support students and communities. This will meet the cost of accommodation, transport and other learning-related costs for students and communities.
How community knowledge centres can strengthen this approach
Establishing community knowledge centres can enable students pursuing different academic fields to converge and consolidate their work. Dialogue sessions can be convened with local communities to discuss veterinary, livestock, crop, water and climate issues, among others.
Such integration can result in engineers working with local artisans and food scientists working with local food caterers in ways that improve both the quality of knowledge and products. Students doing business studies and accountancy can work with rural agro-dealers and local business people so that they are able to run their businesses professionally.
Working with farmers, SMEs and rural businesses will result in many students developing a passion for agriculture and becoming drivers of rural industrialisation. It is also possible to start witnessing growth patterns in knowledge generation from internship all the way to PhD levels.
At the moment you only see someone engaging a particular community when doing a Masters degree or a PhD. It would be useful to link internship with these other studies so that ideas that are honed at internship level can be seen maturing into a PhD. This could add much value to both formal and local knowledge systems, preventing the current disconnection in knowledge.
Preparing graduates for
working with communities
As a country, we have not prepared our graduates to work within communities such as SMEs and rural areas. The formal education system does not prepare students for this but rather seems to alienate them from their rural communities. The more young people become formerly educated the wider their disconnection with their areas of origin.
Students that are attached to NGOs for their internship only visit rural areas like tourists visiting projects once a week or once a month. Development organisations should invest in building strong links between students and their areas of origin.
This will ensure students are part of local knowledge generation practices, making it possible for development partners to access evidence-based information for programming without having to conduct baselines each time a new project is introduced. It takes time for students to understand the essence of their professional fields and boundaries. Often, academic boundaries are known by gate-keepers of particular disciplines, for example university deans. To make it worse, most university deans, lecturers and students have no clue no how to work with rural communities.
Socio-economic internship and outreach programmes will go a long way in addressing some of these knowledge gaps. If internships and outreach programmes are properly linked with rural economic drivers, by the time the students graduate they will have developed a passion and mind set for working with SMEs, farmers and rural communities. They will also have identified opportunities for career advancement. It is very easy to learn how to start a business when attached to a small and medium enterprise because students can see how the SME actor started his or her business. This becomes a mentorship process which transfers tacit knowledge. It also becomes possible to move from internship to starting a business.
On the contrary, it is impossible for a student who does internship with a formal company to start his or her own business after the internship. Students who are really interested in learning and becoming entrepreneurs would rather work with A1 farmers, A2 farmers and SMEs who need knowledge to transition from subsistence to commercial production. Students can assist these actors in preparing agribusiness proposals.
We need a pool of students moving around the country supporting the mechanisation programme. That way, they develop interest and their mind sets are changed to become farmers themselves.
Whatever knowledge and experiences they gather should contribute towards community socio-economic development. At the moment there is a big gap between what is learnt at university and what happens at community level. Students doing accountancy should be able to extend their studies and work with SMEs. Those in agriculture markets can engage with students doing business studies.
The internship and outreach programme being proposed in this article will create a firm bridge between local and formal academic knowledge into value added services. Working with SMEs and farmers offers huge opportunities for students to introduce new innovations in line with what they learn at university.
Through community knowledge centres, ten different disciplines can convene collective dialogues with communities and local resource persons. Local leaders such as Members of Parliament and councillors can also participate in these dialogues which can be done monthly at community level, quarterly at district level and half yearly at provincial levels.
Towards rural and
With agriculture now demanding real time information, a systematic way of gathering information at community level by students can satisfy the information needs of local people and policy makers. The process can also drive rural and peri-urban industrialisation with many creative young people being attracted to rural areas where agro-processing and other opportunities are waiting to be exploited.
Cost drivers related to the movement of agricultural commodities from rural to urban areas will also be reduced as tomatoes will be processed in Mutoko and other source areas rather than be transported to Harare which is just a consumption zone, for instance.
Key outcomes will include rural employment creation and skills transfer. Most rural areas have abundant land, water and labour which are all ready to be used. In rural areas, people can walk from their homes to processing centres unlike in urban areas where the employer is expected to meet transport, food and accommodation costs. These high costs have led to poor relationships between employees and employers.
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) (www.knowledgetransafrica.com) whose flagship eMKambo (www.emkambo.co.zw) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: email@example.com; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.