Educating Women for a Changing Planet

It’s no secret that educating women and girls is critical to sustainable development, economic growth, environmental stewardship, and a host of other factors key to humanity’s future. Educated women have more agency, marry later, and have fewer, and healthier, children. They are more resilient to economic and environmental shocks.

The benefits of educating girls and women are clear. But what if we could do more than simply increase female enrollment? What if we could create an educational experience that explicitly prepares women for careers on our changing planet?

The Akilah Institute, an award-winning women’s college in Rwanda, was founded in 2010 to create opportunities for women. We offer accredited, two-year diplomas in hospitality management, information systems, and business and entrepreneurship. Our programs align with some of the fastest-growing sectors in the regional economy.

Our model appears to be working. A recent alumnae evaluation found that nearly 90% of our graduates secured employment within six months of graduation. They earn incomes that average 12 times Rwanda’s national median income. And nearly 60% of our alumnae have received one promotion in position and/or salary since graduating.

The World Is Changing, So Should Education

But we can’t remain content. The world is changing — and quickly. Population growth, rapid urbanization, technological innovation, and globalization present unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The challenges are compounded by climate change, which disproportionately affects emerging economies. African countries contribute less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the continent is the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

These changes are transforming the global economy and the jobs that fuel it. However, current education systems are not preparing students for the careers of today and the future. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where most education systems were built for the previous era. As things stand, graduates from African universities will spend an average of five years searching for a job. Nearly half of East African employers in a 2014 survey cited a lack of skills as the major reason they did not fill vacancies. Millions of people are out of work or underemployed, but employers leave jobs unfilled because they can’t find qualified talent. The disconnect between graduates’ skills and employer needs will only get worse without a radical rethinking of education.

A New Model for the 21st Century

The world needs innovative, affordable education that prepares 21st-century professionals for the challenges and careers of the future. At Akilah, we’ve embarked on an ambitious three-year strategic plan to offer a radically different educational experience that gives students the frameworks, knowledge, and skills to adapt to a changing world.

Sustainability education forms the core of our new plan. We define sustainability education as the transformative learning process that integrates knowledge from across disciplines  —  from science and technology to engineering and art — to develop innovative solutions to global challenges. Sustainability themes will be embedded in all Akilah courses and ingrained in our culture. Students will be required to complete a core curriculum in sustainability. They’ll apply their knowledge and skills to case studies and real-world projects that challenge them to weigh environmental, social, and economic considerations. Our new model also emphasizes leadership, deep learning, creativity, and moral character to ensure that students can use their knowledge effectively once they graduate.

Increasing Access

To meet increased demand and drive down our cost to serve without compromising the quality of our programs, we’ve adopted a blended learning model rooted in competency-based education (CBE). CBE measures mastery, rather than time spent in the classroom. With a CBE curriculum, students advance only after acquiring a predefined set of skills and knowledge. Students can progress through new material at their own pace, giving them the opportunity to repeat lessons or skip ahead. Our CBE curriculum will be delivered via a blended learning model that combines digital content with in-person group work, public speaking, and academic support.

Our Graduates

Ideally our graduates will go on to build climate resiliency in their communities. They will lead critical conversations around women’s empowerment, climate action, clean energy solutions, smart city innovation, and more.

The workforce will need them. Human adaptation to climate change is projected to create 60 million new jobs worldwide by 2030. Even if graduates choose to pursue careers outside of sustainability, they will gain skills necessary for professional success in the 21st century. They will learn to think critically, acquire new knowledge, solve problems, take initiative, and lead in the workplace.

The Future of Women’s Education 

Thankfully women’s education is increasingly an economic and social priority. However, the quality and type of education matter. The ideal educational experience for women in the 21st century is still an open question. At Akilah, we’re betting that sustainability education will get us closer to a complex answer that will require the efforts of educational institutions, governments, civil society, and the private sector.

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