Friday, May 31, 2013

Education = Employability?

The technique is familiar: If you want to make a claim, make it sound like a self-evident truth. And, persist, as you will do if it is a self-evident truth. And if anyone disagrees, just keep making the claim, as if it is the self-evident truth. Again, again and again.

Such is the case for the claim that education is for employability. Even if there is a doubt lurking in your mind, disagreeing, or even questioning such a claim is so risky: It is almost like questioning the merits of democracy in today's world, or something similar. Even if you are right, you would be regarded a socialist.

So, I would stay away from raising the question whether, philosophically, education should be for employability. I shall accept that for a vast majority of students, this is really what it should be. Particularly as higher education comes with the prospect of a lifelong debt, it is insensitive to talk about a liberal education, which may prepare the mind but leave the bank account empty. Besides, there are many people, safely perched on the ivory tower of great universities and intellectual fame, who are far more qualified to tackle tricky questions such as these.

Rather, I have a dumb question: What really is employability? And can this be taught? I got a job just after I finished my education, and for my education, and therefore believed education is meaningful. My education simply taught me things - economics, politics, philosophy - and allowed me to develop skills, computer programming, ability to talk and write, etc. I used those skills and knowledge when time came to use them, and that got me my first job, promotions and subsequent jobs thereafter. So, by definition, I got my employability from my education. But, despite trying, I couldn't figure out which bits of my education specifically dealt with employability, and indeed, I didn't have an 'employability certificate'.

Now, I don't even think I had a 'great' education: I went to a good college, but not a 'premier' one. Some of the teachers who taught us were inspiring - and the subjects they taught, therefore, were subjects favourite to me - but most others were pedestrian, uninterested, even downright shabby. The method of teaching was mostly didactic, I was never asked to participate in a debate or make a presentation for once in the college and there was no employer interaction. Despite this, I got my first job rather easily, and this happened because I knew something very well - in my case, it was Unix programming - and had a perfect score on the subject. That was a skill in demand, very specific and narrow but just right at the time, and the first interview I gave with a nascent private 'Email service' company I was offered a job.

Indeed, this may exactly prove what I am trying to question, that an effective education should be about employability. But then, there is something else that confounds this thesis. The job I got of managing Unix servers did not take me too far: It was fine as a first job and gave me an exposure to 'corporate life', but in less than two years, I was doing something completely different. I changed jobs and eventually moved out of India, first to Bangladesh and South-East Asia and then to Britain, using none of my Unix skills whatsoever. Given that I have held different jobs and was given fast promotions because 'I was able to think outside the box', I would think while my first employment, which was indeed crucial in the scheme of things, was on account of a very specific skill (though it was a small part of my education), my 'employability' came from my various interests and readings, which, in turn, were inspired by tutors and peers who held many outside interests, political views and passion to change the world.

Looking back, it is indeed tempting for me to think that the first job was what made all the difference, and may be it did. It is even more tempting to nurse my ego and think that I was really really good with programming the Unix servers and hence got the job. But this overlooks important issues: That I was lucky, that I was at the right place at the right time. Getting this job might have been due to the date of the interview, the New Year Eve 1992, and I was among the few available at the placement office for the interview. There was another person competing for the same job, a classmate, who was better than me in me in computing but, in this instance, I had better scores in Unix programming, which was specifically what the employers wanted. Finally, I got on well with the interviewer, and though we did not work together for too long (she left the job only a month after the interview), we developed a lifelong friendship which lasts to this day. 

Finally, the narrative of this job is important because of what happened afterwards. I was offered the job immediately; they also liked my classmate and he would join the same company in a month's time when another position opened up. We had a good run for a couple of years, within which I earned out of turn promotions and my salary quadrupled. However, just when things were quite good, I left and changed my industry. This is because I developed an interest about technology beyond the technical skills that I gained, which was down to the same very inspiring teacher who taught me Unix but opened me up to the world of reading journals, participating in bulletin boards and meeting up with other people in Tech. So, because of this, I ended up in a seminar, paying a fee worth at least two weeks' salary, to watch a new 'bulletin board' they were using in Singapore: The speaker, a tech writer named Atul Chitnis, who used to write in the journals I read so keenly, dialled into Singapore and showed us Internet. I attended the seminar with my classmate and colleague: He came out of the seminar excited about the technical possibility of the Internet; I came out worried about the future of 'Email Service' companies. Accordingly, I changed my career into IT Training, assuming (correctly, as it turned out) that there would be an explosion of opportunity; my colleague persisted with the email service and was soon out of job when the company folded.

The company I joined took me in because I knew about networks and computers, but this was not about Unix servers and Email programmes. However much I would like to think I was impressive, my English was scratchy (I went to a Bengali-medium school), I had no idea how to dress and even had no idea how IT training industry, and franchising, operated. What I had going for me then, if I am allowed to indulge, were my genuine enthusiasm about technology changing the way we do things (which persists even today), my willingness to be a part of that change and my readiness to learn: All the things I owe to those wonderful teachers who freely stepped out of the curricular boundaries and gave me their spare time to encourage, to support and to inspire. The bits which were most unlike 'employability training' in my education were the bits that mattered most in the end.

Hence, my rather silly question - what then is employability and how do you teach it? I ask this because I feel this is one of those top-down nonsenses, a word conjured out of the air (why else my spellchecker does not recognise the word?) that some spin-doctor somewhere made up, simply to shift the responsibility of keeping young people gainfully employed to the education institutions. Educators, mostly compliant to their paymasters, have accepted in unison the existence of this panacea called employability training, never questioning the fact that all the real employers really want is a glut of skilled people so that they can be hired cheaply. They have overlooked, possibly consciously ignored, the fact that employability from the government's, and the employers', points of views, look quite different from what it does from the students' vantage point: For them, it is about getting a meaningful life and, if I may add, ownership of their own lives, rather than an interview and a job, and then lifelong compliance till one is made redundant (which is natural conclusion of a dependent existence). The current slew of 'employability' courses, which teach the students to commoditise themselves - wear a certain colour of shirts, write the CV in a given format, sell yourself at the interviews - thrive on the assumption that the students can be fooled easily, made to buy the notion as a revealed truth through the media cacophony, an object directly opposite to what education should do. The 'employability' certificates, a moronic expression that captures the absurdity of the whole enterprise, demonstrates the inevitable folly of all government policies - reduction of all human possibilities to a funding game! And, indeed, this means that the students become less employable in the end, not more.

I do not intend to have an answer to my own question, but I am aware what is not an answer. I know it is a disaster letting someone steal our education in the name of employability. I know our unquestioning subservience to this employability doctrine leaves our students impoverished, rather than empowered. Good education has always equipped students with imagination, ability and persistence; turning people into factory fodders deprive them of these very abilities that create the possibilities of better life and prosperity. We certainly need more meaningful education, but we must search harder for what it means.

1 comment:

somanshu said...

Hi,
I am a 3rd yr B.tech. undergraduate.
In my 3 years of experience I felt that inspite of gaining something, I have lost everything, I feel terrible. I've lost my creativity and passion towards engineering and technology!!! And I don't know why !!
I don't care about employability but I feel sad and education deprived :(

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