Competence and Interests

The big question for Higher Ed is how does it remain relevant when almost half of those pursuing it do not get what they pursue it for, a job. The Higher Ed expansion since the 70s, and in developing countries in more recent years, was based on a middle class dream which has now disappeared, and with it, the legitimacy of the present structure. Besides, the withering of the Welfare State, and the coming of modern corporate statism, undermined the mandate Higher Education institutions had of delivering a middle class economy (a term Obama resurrected, but perhaps past its sale-by date).

Everyone is trying to answer this, and not least, the global network of investors, who sees Higher Education as an essential ingredient of hope in the future, a key element of expansion of credit and a driver of consumption like no other. Higher Ed, from their vantage point, is crucial for sustenance of the modern economic vision, the dynamic status quo that they bet, literally, on. They have a solution, and that is about a radical reorganisation of Higher Education around competencies.

This prescription is simple and starts with the proposition, self-evident or it should be, that Higher Education is about a job in the end. The big problem is the Education-to-Employment gap (E2E gap, in McKinsey's convenient shorthand), and the way to bridge this to create a Higher Education offering aligned closely to what employers want - competencies. The traditional organisation of Higher Education around Subjects or Disciplines are not relevant anymore, because the employers do not look for degrees in Sociology or Psychology, but rather ask the question whether the candidate can do what they require. Therefore, treating competence as the starting point - which, in a benign setting, would only mean whether the student can apply their knowledge to a particular business problem - will help rearrange the Higher Education model to fit the needs of a modern economy. 

Before one explores this argument, not just in terms of what this says but also what it does not say, it is worthwhile to see this argument in the broad context of its supposed consequence. It is argued that not bridging the E2E gap would lead to instabilities such as in the Middle East, where street protests are destabilising the states and disrupting normal lives. Thus, a fundamental rethink about Higher Education is in order, not as an academic exercise but as a survival need for our entire social order. 

The fact that the case for bridging E2E gap is based on this argument is not insignificant. While it is possible to see the struggles in the Middle East as people fighting for their democratic rights, something that education, in its usual liberal form, is supposed to enable, the conversation is being reframed as a breakdown of the middle class consensus in vogue since the early seventies. Seen this way, an argument is being made pointing to the breakdown of the neo-liberal order, and the urgency of an all-pervading educational agenda in order to preserve the same. So, we may say, by extending this argument about E2E gap and the competence-based formula to save it, that once we rearrange our Higher Education models accordingly, we would never again have street protests against corrupt dictators running illegitimate administrations, as we would all be too busy paying off our mortgages. 

With this in the background, let us return to the argument that Higher Education should be rearranged around competencies. This argument jumps a step, somewhat. The arrangement of Higher Education around subject areas, with the teacher, being the dispenser of that knowledge, firmly in command, has come under scrutiny for over a century now. Such model, it was argued, is not conducive to the engagement of the students, who are somewhat dis-empowered within such a setup, not being able to pursue their interests and life-goals. This lack of engagement was cited as the main problem of Higher Education, and indeed, this was amplified, not resolved, in the university systems overtly under the state control, where the bureaucratic formats of the State and the consequent managerialism among the university ranks made the institution drift away farther from the interests of the students.

One may claim that arranging an university curriculum in alignment with student interests is undesirable and impractical. Undesirable, because the students may not be interested in anything, or be interested in pointless pursuits. And, it is also impractical because of the industrial, scale-sensitive nature of the university operations. However, as this argument was raging for over a century, we have already had detailed investigation of what the interests could be. In fact, in this model, the task of the institution is not to dispense knowledge, but primarily to create enlightened interests of the students (which makes more sense now than a century ago, with knowledge being so easily accessible). And, this is practical too, as innovations in technology make it possible to attend scale at the same time as allowing diversity (we don't all have to buy black cars anymore).

The argument that we must look at competence as the organising principle for university curriculum stands in direct opposition not just to the traditional university designed around subject knowledge, but also around the democratic model of being led by enlightened self-interest of the students. The question to ask about competence is indeed who defines the competence, and whether giving priority to such externally-imposed competence models would enhance student engagement and make learning sticky and effective any further than the traditional subject-based models do. 




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