The trouble with Skills

The big idea in private higher education is Skills.

With a big S. 

The argument goes that the traditional Higher Ed spends too much time disseminating Knowledge, and does not focus adequately on Skills. This is why we have an 'employability' problem today - too many graduates in non-graduate jobs with stagnating wages and no prospects of progression - and by putting skills at the heart of education, this can all be magically transformed.

This argument may sound superficial and one can justifiably argue that the distinction between skills and education is an artificial one. Besides, one may also contend that the employability problem is more a labour market problem than an education problem: The structure of the economy is rapidly changing and that, rather than any educational deficiency, has caused the jammed elevator of middle-class life. And, finally, it can further be argued that at the heart of the problem is antiquated - though not unjustified - expectation about middle-class life. 

However, putting skills at the heart of educational enterprise brings about a fundamental change in what institutions do. With millions of dollars of private investment flowing into this direction - and its attendant, sponsored, publicity - the question whether skill development should be the primary, if not the sole, point of education needs to be answered.

Of course, this publicity presents the proposition as obvious: What else, other than skills that employers care for can be the point of education? The implicit assumption here, of course, is that education is a private enterprise, privately paid for to accrue private benefits, and hence, the claims of social aims, of cooperative society, tolerance and democracy, are not important. However, my contention here is that even in the pure economic terms, and for creation of private benefits, focus on skills is not helpful.

The argument about skills miss the point that skills are defined by social and technological environment, and in the context of globalised economy, a particular society's position in the global value chain. And, this does not work equally well for all societies: In fact, in the current winner-takes-all economic architecture, it's all too easy for an entire society to get caught in the wrong end of the value chain. If education is solely about skills, education in these societies would merely reaffirm and sustain its position in the global value chain. This may create a 'loser trap', self-reinforced surrender of economic potential, for this society and its people.

For individuals too, the mere pursuit of skills in such a society is counter-productive. They will be signing up for a lifetime of grunt work, and give away their possibilities of transcending their fate. Of course, the theoretical possibility of migration exists: One could argue that the focus on skills don't just have to be limited to the local requirements, but one could perhaps train on global skills and escape the geographically predetermined life and fate. However, the world is not as perfect as it appears in economic theories and a migrant is up against prejudices that extract a rent and put barriers for realising the personal potential. If you have ever met a Pakistani MBA graduate driving mini-cab in London, don't blame the education system alone: Spare a thought about how difficult it is to overcome the national stereotypes!

My argument, therefore, is that for those societies who are disadvantaged if the global status quo is maintained - which is all the developing countries - skills can not and should not be point of education. Education must, for those millions flocking into colleges in Asia and Africa, transform the economic structures of these societies and allow these graduates to improve their lives. Transformation, rather than conforming to the labour market demands, must be the point of education here.

Of course, one can still refer to the capabilities required to bring about this transformation as skills, but that is really blurring the lines and obfuscating the topic. What's needed is imagination, an ability to look beyond the pre-existing categories of thought. It's not, as is commonly assumed, 'entrepreneurship', but more: One has to recognise that capital formation happens differently in the disadvantaged societies and hence, entrepreneurship may mean a very different thing in context. It's the ability to rise above the obvious that education should aim for: It's promise needs to be more than that of fitting in somehow.



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