The Future of Professional Education

What to do with Professional Education?

While there is endless discussion about Vocational and Higher Education in the context of what we have come to call Knowledge Economy, no one seems to talk much about Professional Education. One reason for this is that we assume Professional Education to be the business of self-contained professional communities - Lawyers, Accountants, Surveyors etc - and those who pursue them to be self-selected aspirants who have chosen that profession for themselves. It is, however, a quaint view, because most people pursuing Professional Education are just students looking for jobs (or Mid-career employees looking to define a profession for themselves) and it should be as much a part of the conversation about building the knowledge economy as any other form of Education.

But if general conversation about Professional Education is off the mark, professional bodies do not do much better themselves. They are caught between two roles - one as the gatekeeper of the profession and the other as educators - and they tend to define themselves more in terms of the first. Despite the fact that most learners pursuing Professional Education is not a part of the profession in the strict sense, they tend to derive their approach from the golden past of controlling standards of certain social functions. The point they miss is that the Knowledge Economy is perhaps undermining that role quite precipitously. The concept of knowledge, authority and expertise are indeed changing, but most professions, at least the properly organised ones, are oblivious to this. India's Chartered Accountancy Institute is more concerned about keeping their status as the sole authority to sign off company accounts, but is oblivious that book-keeping and tax calculation software has dramatically reduced the number of accountants the society needs, and the roles they play. This change of the role of professions is further accentuated by the twin forces shaping our society - automation and globalisation - that alters many of the premises our old-world closed world arrangements were built upon.

It is difficult for many professional bodies to adapt to this new reality, and some are feeling the pain more than the others. Indian Chartered Accountancy body is a great example. They are completely at a loss why most of their members can not find an employment, in effect reducing its appeal to new aspirants and undermining the professional respect they get from the rest of the society. 

However, if the overall Professional Education is facing some sort of crisis of identity, one could see that one part of the market, not strictly defined as professional education, is doing well. This is the Certification market, particularly in context of technologies and standards. People are flocking to study for those and there is almost always a job at the end of it. These tests have many features of a professional education - they certify a certain standard of performance - but in other ways, they represent an Open profession rather than a closed one. In a lot of ways, they are weak professions - these professionals have to prove their worth every day rather than relying on a socially guaranteed privilege, but at a time of breaking of the professions, this is no longer a disadvantage. 

I am arguing that therein may lie the future of the professional education, where the emphasis shifts from the entry into a closed profession to the education aimed at excellence and expertise. This may mean many things, including that today's professional bodies may morph more into Certification agencies, validating a body of knowledge and defining the standards. This will require them to adapt to ecosystems thinking - how to build an ecosystem around qualified accounting professionals (Hint - the starting point may be to think about all the less exalted professions that may need accounting knowledge) rather than building walls around it and trying to protect its privileges. That way, certainly this is about bringing everyone in the conversation - educators, policy makers, employers - rather than trying to maintain the professional mystic by leaving everyone out. This may be, I shall argue, the future of Professional Education.



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