Employer Awards: The Thing That Would Change Higher Ed?

What shape would disruption happen in Higher Ed? All the new institutions claim they are disruptive, and indeed, even the old and prestigious institutions are keen on disrupting themselves with the MOOCs. What shape the disruption will take is a guessing game, and here is my two-bits on what this could look like.

My conjecture about 'What' is based on the 'Why' question. Why is Higher Education in the risk of getting disrupted? A large part of the answer is clearly linked to the decline of the nation state, the key sponsor of the Higher Education that we see now. And, this is not just about the money that the State gives to Higher Education. It is more about the nation state as a social system and Higher Education's function within the same. 

The Nation State should be understood as a Power System, run by an elite with certain ethnic and cultural values. This system, with its set of rules, privileges and relationship, are linked closely to the definition of this elite. Higher Education, in its modern form, was a system to define this elite. Indeed, the modern nation builders were quite clear about that. Nehru, in choosing to prioritise on the creation of IITs over universal primary education, was swayed by the idea of the need for an intellectual elite who would lead India's public sector driven economy (this was before people talked about Brain Drain). 

With the advent of what is now being called 'hyper-globalisation', this power system has been undermined. Rather unwittingly, global capital movements and free trade, which tend to diffuse consumption across national boundaries, undermined the power of nation states to dictate their citizens' consumer aspirations. Currently fashionable doctrines of minimal state have limited the role of the Nation State as the consumer of Higher Education, the employer outside the college gate. The global workflows have created a global market of talent and skills, at least for the Highly Educated. And, finally, as the states themselves sought legitimacy in terms of consumer aspirations, expressed in the magic figure of GDP Growth signifying jobs and money, there has been a democratisation of aspiration incompatible with the system of privileges that defined the model of Higher Education. The New Democratic mindset, which imply at least an aspiration for the equality of opportunity to consume, is directly at odds with the idea of some special people.

In context, the power of the Nation State has been matched by the power of the corporations. When someone lists Facebook as the biggest country superseding China, and followed by a few other social networks before India or United States get a place, there is some element of truth in it. The vast power of an Apple and Google can influence national policies, as Governments desparately court them to invest so that jobs can be created. These corporations, despite their ruthless pursuit of profit, represent the new middle class dream. The prodigal son now goes to work for Google and does not become a District Officer. Indeed, this change is more visible in some countries and less in others, and indeed some countries cling to the 'North Korea' option. One thumb rule of where universities are in greater risk of being disrupted (nation state is weak) and where it is still going strong (nation state remains relatively healthy) is to look at the health of broadcast media, like Newspapers and even Television. Still strong nation states usually mean thriving broadcast media, like India; weaken Nation States have anaemic newspapers and News TV Channels trying to find a purpose, like Britain. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that Indians, despite the poor state of their university education, are among the most satisfied in the world about its standards, whereas the British, despite its fine universities, despair about it.

However, one must not underestimate the equalising effect of globalisation. And, in the context of the new power equation that underlie the society - the power of the consumer over that of the provider, say - the most potent force in Higher Education is perhaps the Employer Sponsored Awards. These, as they are structured now, often remain outside the usual regulatory structure and are unencumbered by the bureaucracy, slowness and navel-gazing that comes with it. The vast power of the employer in the dreams and aspirations of the new Middle Classes give these awards a great appeal. Even the Indians, pragmatic as they are, sign up in droves for one or the other Diploma that gets them a job, and often give it more energy and focus, notwithstanding their love affair with the degree. 

One example of an employer sponsored award is perhaps the Micro- and Nano- degrees offered by various MOOC providers, along with Google etc. But, one must not overlook the hugely successful technology certification programmes that preceded it and touched the lives of millions of professionals and students. This is a rather ignored subject in Higher Education conversation, but one of its most modern forms. Now, newer, technologically enhanced forms are emerging, along with greater scope and aspirations, and spreading beyond the realm of specific technologies. 

The trick in making employer sponsored awards to come of age is to build an open competency framework around these. And, this is coming of age, with many new start-ups working to create the same. The employers, traditionally the consumers of Higher Education and mostly passive ones, are being prodded by Global Workforce Crisis, to take a more proactive stance. A trend is building, an avalanche is coming. 


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