Education for Employment: A New Paradigm for Engagement
As the economies around the world starts to recover, our worst suspicion will be confirmed: This is likely to be a jobless recovery. Employers, living through austere times, have not just squeezed out every bit of efficiency they could by use of machinery and stretching their staff, but also are scarred psychologically: It would take a long time for them to expand their workforces imagining a rosy future again. Yet, the numbers at Education institutions are higher than ever before: As I write this post, the British universities are celebrating an ever higher intake, despite a three fold rise in tuition fees, while moaning, as usual, the loss of 'standards', indicating that people who wouldn't have previously gone to universities are now going there.
This setting makes it 'the best of the times and the worst of the times' for Higher Education. Never before more people wanted it, and never before its value was so disputed and its practitioners so undermined. The sector's reaction to this brave new world is usually a combination of denial, that employment by itself should be a worthwhile goal for education, and denouement, that employers and politicians have created an elaborate scheme to shift the blame on educators for a broader social problem. While there may be some truth in both positions, a different response to reality is needed: Clearly those coming to Higher Education now, from families where no one has gone to college before and those who can ill afford a significant loan that their adventures in Higher Ed will invariably bestow upon them, would prefer to have a job at the end of their studies: Other benefits are welcome, but an employment will be a life-saver. The employers have clearly forgotten some of their responsibilities (believing, perhaps too seriously, in Friedman's doctrine of 'business of the business is business') but they may claim that the social bargain they have made is to pay tax dollars (which they don't pay, and should be held to account for that) but the educators must produce the grads. Indeed, the companies are often hailed as 'job creators' and they seem to enjoy all that accolade, though, if the above argument is to be accepted, the educators are the only job creators a society may have and the companies may merely passively accept them.
Once the educators engaged in this debate and accepted the challenge though, they would perhaps discover how they have lost control over the recruitment process. For all the talk of creating rounded individuals (a claim which, given the poor run of CEOs, Politicians and other institutions in our society, can be severely contested), the only tool Higher Education has relied upon for successful absorption of the graduates in the workforce is prestige. The sector may love to hate college rankings, but so far, those badges of prestige are the ones which they touted most successfully. However, this mechanism has its inherent limitations: This creates winners and losers in Higher Education, while the ranks of lower prestige institutions usually swelled with those who need the employment most. Besides, the employers are increasingly weary of the prestige-based metrics and in the absence of other alternatives, are increasingly relying on behavioural metrics, complex models which may combine a candidate's contribution to open source code with their interest in Manga, to take recruitment decisions. These techniques and models are still evolving, but their popularity may work against the Higher Education's claim to be sole arbiter of employment in a modern society.
However, an engaged educator may find that the employers are increasingly talking the language they wish to hear. The graduate recruiters' favourite term now is T-skills, a combination of breadth and depth, which, to the educators' delight, differentiates good education from mere training. The late Twentieth century recruitment practice of increasing specificity, which caused anguish among the educators and rightly so, is losing popularity, as the employers themselves face rapidly moving economic situation and start accepting flexible structures as a way of life. In an article in Atlantic Monthly, Don Peck talks about Xerox's recruitment tests and the desirable candidates having a 'creative but not overly inquisitive personality, and (who) participate in at least one but not more than four social networks', which sounds like the modern educators' model of a good student as well. The disciplined creativity that has been the holy grail of Higher Education is now forming the core of recruitment practice.
In the end, despite the divergent rhetoric surrounding education for employment, the practices are, then, converging. The students demand a practical education; the system based on prestige is inadequate for this age of mass education and failing most educators and students anyway. The employers are looking for T-skills, which is indeed what the educators promise to deliver. The recruiters' penchant for behavioural prediction can be better satisfied by the merger of classroom and workplace than the complex models that Silicon Valley start-ups are building. The case here is clearly one of engagement: The sooner the educators catch up on this, the better.