To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best and the worst of the times for Higher Education. On one hand, Higher Education was never more popular. A preserve of the rich and the privileged, it has now become the mantra for everyone aspiring to move up in life. The success of the Western Middle Class in the Post-war years of industrial expansion created a template that everyone around the world to follow, a life of suburban bliss (or an urban apartment), a family, a car, a good school for kids, all inextricably tied to going to college and getting a job afterwards. On another, Higher Education is also in serious trouble, because the equation does not work in practice. The middle class jobs are vanishing, the middle class incomes are stagnating, families are breaking down and state provisions of education and health (where it existed) are being whittled down to meaninglessness. And, most apparently, the Education-to-Employment linkage is breaking down. More than half the graduates, on average, can not find a job. Media is baying for Higher Education blood, as are the Policy-makers, who are squarely blaming the educators for betraying the middle class dream.
Despite the apparent failure of Education-to-Employment equation, the conversation in the last few years was of more Higher Education, not less. President Obama had set ambitious targets for college achievement, as did other leaders in other countries. India and China started building colleges in breakneck speed (average 5 new colleges per day in India since 2006), and most countries mulled policies to open up higher education to private investment for expansion of capacity. For-Profit Higher Education, a pariah form for most educators, were allowed in, some cases through the back-doors (as in Britain), despite their chequered track record in the United States and the increased risks for the students (as demonstrated in case of Corinthian Colleges in the US, for example). Higher Education, usually a quiet scholarly pursuit outside the Public Debate, found itself firmly at the centre of it. Its role in developing and maintaining the nation states were finally recognised through its failure.
The discussion how to cure this failure has now began in all earnestness, and we have several different approaches on the table. Most are based on making Higher Education more directed, more employment focused. Curriculum innovation is in full swing, and rather than leading the public discussion, Higher Education seems to be catching up on every media fad as it appears, creating specialisations on the go. The For-Profits are leading the charge on transforming Higher Education, and this has become one of most attractive sectors for technology investors, as they seek to transform the sector through technology.
Can these new efforts really bridge Education-to-Employment gap? Having engaged in this conversation for several years now, I feel that the current approaches do not take into account several important factors. I have listed the top challenges that we may face in our quest to bridge the gap.
First, the conversation about Education-to-Employment gap insufficiently acknowledges the changes in the middle class life and work. The new approaches are premised on a failure of traditional Higher Education to do its job, but overlook the changing nature of jobs, entry requirements, and the labour market structures. The hollowing out of labour market in the middle is undeniable, and promising to fix Higher Education to lead people to those jobs would not work. The job market today reward specific skills and higher levels of training, and may require a person to remain in education for longer, and not a shorter period of time. This may mean additional training after the First Degree, rather than a magic formula that can transform a person and make her employable.
Second, the conversation regarding Education-to-Employment, particularly in context of technology companies backed by venture capital, do not sufficiently factor in Country variations in terms of Educational systems and cultures, nature of work and wages. The work that a multinational organisation like Google or Amazon does in United States, Europe and India, for example, would be very different and responsive to local talent availability. A global solution to Education-to-Employment is, therefore, difficult to build, and any global model being completely blind to the needs of the local employers (and of students, because while they may have global aspirations, most have to find jobs locally).
Third, if we accept the failure to anticipate the dynamic and the diversity of labour markets as serious challenges of building global models for Education-to-Employment, a third dimension of the problem would emerge. Which is, education is, using a metaphor popularised by Scottish academic Tim Ingold, a wayfaring activity rather than transportation. The difference between the two is indeed that transportation is destination focused, whereas wayfaring is more about the journey. In the world where the destination is ever-changing and illusive, as we argue the nature of employability really is, focusing too much on destination at the cost of the journey may indeed be a big problem. The abilities that the student needs, for example, ability to adapt to unforeseen situations, can not be pre-packaged in a curriculum, or even measured in the predictable way as a skill. But, open-endedness is not a feature of the Education-to-Employment conversation, and is unlikely to be.
My own experience in the field now prompts me to think about some form of Employer-led Onboarding Process, after a certain level of educational achievement, to be the way of solving the problem. It is apprenticeship in a new package, a period where learning takes precedence at work but the learner is immersed in actual practice. This is outside the standard educational experience, which has its own value in developing important traits of character, an experience created with employer participation and direction. This is the Employer-varsity that stands outside the gate of the university, not as a substitute, but as a necessary complement.
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