Friday, February 22, 2013

Education and Employability: Who's afraid of Knowledge?

Employability is the mantra of the day, because we sure have a jobs problem. Governments are making universities, in fact education system as a whole, the scapegoat for millions of unemployed that they have to deal with. The conclusion is straightforward: There must be an education problem if so many people can't find jobs even after getting educated. And, hence, increasingly, public policy is making employability the centre-piece of the higher education agenda.

I shall argue that this oversimplifies the problem and diverts our attention. I am not suggesting that the education model does not need looking at: Indeed, we need to revisit what the universities do in the context of the modern world. But, employability is not a problem created by the universities and colleges, it is a structural issue and everyone knows this. To start with, there are not enough jobs available. It is very good to say that there are vacancies for Rocket Scientists and Brain Surgeons while there is unemployment at the street, but no university in the world can, or would wish to, take a salesman and try turn him into a Brain Surgeon. It is important to acknowledge that the jobs crisis is triggered by, in a mundane way, by lack of jobs.

I make this point because I believe this quest for employability is misguided, and indeed, counterproductive. This makes us feel that the education is useless because it is not getting us jobs. It discriminates against certain disciplines, which are socially important and profoundly rewarding to people who pursue them, such as History or Philosophy, and make everyone follow the herd into disciplines such as Business or Accountancy, only to end them up in the disappointment of joblessness. Indeed, the business students learn assiduously the merits of productivity enhancement, but miss the irony that this means lack of jobs of themselves. 

Indeed, this is not an argument for a return to the ivory tower: Education must make its recipient socially useful, and not a disconnected snob, or at least not any more. But, the central point is that there is a difference between being socially useful and employable, and when the employment opportunities are shrinking, it is the job of education institutions, in fact an essential reason for their existence, is to equip its pupils with perspectives and knowledge that helps them see the alternatives. This common sense point is being lost in the cacophony about employability, which is the easy route pursued by clueless politicians to drive restless young people to mediocrity and despair, and the chimera to avoid scrutiny, which an useful education, focused on finding a person's useful social role, would expose them into.

So, the way things are now, it is knowledge versus employability: Enlightening versus the useless, pitted against one another. I really don't want to make this sound adversarial, but this is how it is, the rhetoric about employability is all about demoting the role of knowledge, and even denying that one needs to know anything at all, and fitting the student attitudes and lives in the debt-fuelled consumption continuum. There is no one who is left to doubt this, indeed: No one standing up and yelling "Give it a break!"

Give it a break! Indeed, that's what we ought to say. The practise of education should push forward our understanding and instead of situated, choked shall we say, within the context of our current social reality, should empower us collectively to see the possibilities and to imagine. These institutions are the ones which should, before everyone, see beyond employability, see that the era of company man, lifetime jobs and pension-centred retired life is over. The educators are the ones who should explore the new ways of being socially useful, and how we transform our lives, and that of our next generation, to fit the era of diminished employment. But this stepping outside of the box has been forbidden, locked down, by this monstrous mediocrity called the employability.

This trade-off is dangerous, ultimately soul-destroying. A student should be touching their graduation parchment with a sense of fulfillment and confidence, that s/he has traversed the path and enjoyed the journey, and this point on, would seek to create value for all those around them, who have supported, facilitated, paid for that journey. This is not utopian, this is what it is meant to be. However, this is being eaten away: The debts, the crushing burden of being a consumer, makes the moment of graduation feel like jailbreak, a burst of freedom into uncertainty, identity crisis and extreme fear. In fact, most have been prepared that way: The media stories of millions of unemployed, the politician's rhetoric of employability deficit, the businesses moaning the lack of nuclear scientists who would work for nothing. The achievements are belittled, the education considered useless, knowledge a pretension one needs to leave behind as they enter the 'practical' world. The educator may be blamed for this dichotomy, and the student is its obvious victim, but it is this construct that needs redoing, and not what education is for. 

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