Thursday, July 19, 2012

Quality and Profits: Teaching Employability

Employability, at the time of writing, is the buzzword in Higher Education, some sort of holy grail defined by the governments, pursued by the institutions and seen as an opportunity by all sorts of companies, including the large ones involved in publishing. A number of initiatives are underway: New websites and apps are being developed, new books being published, and there are even companies which offer 'employability certificates'. In short, the confusion in Higher Education is in full display with this business of employability.

This is a worldwide issue. It is an old one in America, and most people are therefore keen to import content from the States. It is a new one in Britain, as the Government of the day has suddenly woken up to it and mandated that every university should publish data on students' employability. It is a critical one for India, where the poor quality private schools are creating a degree inflation but the students are mostly stranded without a job, causing all sorts of problems. A number of companies, including Pearson, is already building solutions for employability training. I also met a number of Indian entrepreneurs who suggested that employability training, rather than higher education business, is the most interesting thing in India. Good luck to them!

For me, employability training is like payment protection insurance, one shouldn't need it if they were rightly evaluated in the first place and their education actually worked. The reason we suddenly have all the buzz around employability training is because Higher Education Institutions have failed their students. So, we have swathes of degree holders who can't do a thing, and in most cases, are looking for what newspapers call 'graduate level jobs' without necessarily having the required skills. 

The source of the problem is manifold, but starts with this mirage that higher education means a better job. This is then amplified as poor teaching, out-of-touch curriculum and pointless certification are added on top of this. Suddenly, we have graduates who may have a degree but have sleepwalked through the college. On the other hand, the tutors in colleges have felt that it is not their job to think about employability, as the students should pursue knowledge for its own sake - just that s/he forgot to tell this to the Admissions Counsellor. In summary, as I said, the buzz around employability training tells us how badly the Higher Education has failed.

Because, Higher Education should make students employable on its own. We shouldn't talk about disinterested pursuit of knowledge unless we attract students who are interested in that: We can't sell Higher Education as a life-changing proposition and then, at the end, turn around and say that employability isn't our job. Worse is the pretension of those who believe that employability can be injected into someone with a few hours of additional training, and laughably, can be certified. 

May be, I am being pedantic, because what most of these employability training does is to present packaged formula to get through interviews etc. They should rather be called Interview Prep workshops rather than employability training. However, I think even that basic job of interview preparation is not easy to do, and there are certainly no formula to get it right. In fact, trying to give people wisdom is usually the worst thing one can do, to create false confidence, which backfires in most places and leaves the candidate clueless. Besides, most interview preparation workshops are done by people who have been on the receiving end of the interviews, so this is an art of mostly blind teaching the blind. Employability training, in short, perpetuates dis-employability, if there is such a thing.

It is not easy to solve the problem, admittedly. It is not about talking to employers and getting the right requirements, because this may mean too many specific skills which may leave graduates with very narrow career options. It is not about changing the curricula with labour market movements, because there is a time lag by definition and one would always prepare today's graduates for yesterday's jobs. It is certainly not about training on and certifying employability - who cares about such certificates anyway?

However, there is an easy solution, which is far too obvious to be glamourous. It is about making education work - endowing graduates with practical skills such as good manners and communication, enterprise (which means flexibility and eye for an opportunity in context) and the practice of hard work. Every employer looks for those skills, and one of the reasons behind graduate unemployment is the fixation of graduate level jobs, of which no one has a right idea. I shall happily hire the person who says he has been working in a newsagent while looking for a job, over the person who kept looking for graduate level job and sat unemployed (in Britain, on Jobseekers Allowance) for many months. 

I know this will not float employability boat, nor it will please the HEIs which are used to selling Higher Education as a mixture of voodoo and rocket science. But the only way, at least in my mind, to get it right is to wake up and acknowledge that employability isn't something people wear around their necks, but something which people acquire, through hard work and commitment.  

3 comments:

Kaustav Majumdar said...

Interesting thoughts Supriyo. Very well written.
I am writing something on similar lines and it will be nice to collaborate. I hope to write a long-ish passage based on my experiences as a trainer as well as observing the education space over the years. Your experience is invaluable and I will be grateful if you would consider sharing your thoughts with me. My partner in this is a professor from a leading US University who has been working closely with developments in education in US, Brazil & India. Do let me know your thoughts.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Thanks Kaustav. I would look forward to: Let me know what you need. Our Skype conversation is still pending, so let me know when you are available.

Anonymous said...

just finished yet another employability course. that's 3 in the 6 months i have been out of work.

surely the money spent on these would be much better spent in creating new jobs.

instead its spent on encouraging people compete more for the jobs that do exist, reducing any 1 persons chance of successfully getting the job. surely this and trying to make the students more confident at their chances is having the opposite effect and just lining them up for disapointment

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