On The Holy Grail of 'Demand-Led' Degrees

Over last several years, I have worked to find that Holy Grail of Education: A degree that leads directly to a Job!

I did write about this search on this blog, all the dead ends, disappointments and revealations that came along the way. Starting with perfect innocence - that this is the best thing that can happen to corporations whose difficulty in finding skilled personnel - I came to learn the ground realities of the trade, that the skills gap is usually 'someone else's problem' and long-term solutions are no good for the managers focused on quarterly targets. 

Despite this, however, I got somewhere. Almost implausibly (to me, at least), I got some advance commitments on hiring graduates we could train. It was a commitment with all the expected checks and balances, but that provided that keystone for building a demand-led degree. And, indeed, the first one is always the hardest: Once that one commitment was signed off, it was easier to have conversations with other companies, because they could follow a template.

But this post is not about my conversations with corporations, which I wrote about elsewhere. This is more about the insights I had later, once we designed the programme around the hiring commitment and took it to students. The proposition, however imperfect, is the nearest one could get to the holy grail - an explicit demand, a clearly articulated way to get there, a degree that leads to a job! 

This part of the story has many angles: We had to explore the question of pricing, payment mechanisms, the actual structure of the course, communication and branding. But there is one insight, a challenge, that stood out above all else, stemming from the simple idea of customer segmentation, but one that may undermine the whole proposition of 'demand-led' education.

That the students who are looking for education is not looking for a job, at least not immediately, and those who are looking for a job are not looking for education.

I am not making a philosophical statement, though there may be a philosophical point here. Nor, having spent most of my working life in For-Profit Education, I am inclined to make the case for greater purpose of education, though there is such a case to be made. This, for me at the current time, is simply a question of tactic: How to deal with the divergence of student expectations in building a demand-led education proposition?

Let's take the easier part of the proposition first: Those who are looking for a job are not looking for a degree. If we talk about the job being the point of all the endeavour, those who engage with it are simply focused on the job itself, and the process of a degree education to them is irrelevant. As a proposition, asking someone to pay to get a job is easier, though may not be ethical, than asking them to pay and spend time educating themselves with a degree to get that job. 

The other side of the proposition works in parallel: Those who are looking for a degree are looking for the usual attributes that come with it - recognition, ranking etc - rather than the job that awaits in  the end. It is indeed just a matter of thinking, and possibly the conversation would be completely different if this was not about a degree leading to a job, but a shorter, 'job-training' proposition: But, then, we have always assumed that this - the perfect combination of academic credentials and employer demand - would be the future of Higher Education.

The point is, it could be. Nothing in this limited experiment invalidates that broad proposition about the future of Higher Education. This may simply be too novel to believe in, ahead of its time. May be the market, India, which is a conservative educational market, is not suited for this kind of proposition yet, because degrees, in India, have all kinds of cultural connotation and marriage-market premiums attached to it. But, it would perhaps be equally mistaken to treat these insights as outliers, because the countries with most youth unemployment problem are usually those which are most conservative about its Higher Education.

One can plausibly conclude that such conservatism about Higher Education is indeed the key reason for Education-to-Employment transition, but that does not help us derive a solution. The conservatism about Higher Education, as in India, is rooted in history and culture of the country, and is unlikely to change in near future, or without a significant social unheaval. In real terms, then, despite all the common-sense appeal of demand-driven degrees, this may not be a solution to the education-to-employment transitions at all.

Indeed, I know my formulation of 'demand-driven education' is limited and wrong, and this is exactly what is causing the problem. I am defining it as an award tied to some kind of job guarantee, and there are obvious problems with this approach. Education is, by its nature, a forward-looking enterprise, shaped by expectations rather than here-and-now acquisitions. However, the tangibility of those expectations have always been the problem, and investors, educators and education entrepreneurs are forever in the quest of making it more tangible: I assumed that I reached the promised land, only to discover that tangibility often turns expectations to dust.

The other problem indeed is the degree, which is a closed framework, stuck to regulatory structures and cultural assumptions. The construction of demand-led education is not simply about attaching a clearly defined job with a degree, but making the framework of a degree open enough to accommodate the demands of the labour markets in general. Educators, stuck to the frameworks generally treat openness and flexibility as a deviation. I remember an educational experiment from the 90s when an educational institution came out with a 'blank semester', a semester whose contents would be defined at a future time: This was not well received, and soon became an object of ridicule: And, justifiably so, as it sought to box the future within one semester of a pre-defined curriculum. 

My next quest begins here: To create a model of demand-led education, combining the insights of local labour markets and open frameworks.



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