Friday, January 24, 2014

Education for Employment: The Educators' Option

UK's job outlook improved last quarter, with a fall in jobless numbers not seen 'since early 2009', which really means that we are getting close to the figures before this recession began, though not yet there. This is, however, good news: At the least, such news will make businesses invest and hire, making this sliver of good news self-sustaining, hopefully. This will mean a lot to those graduating this year, they may indeed escape the fate of those who landed in the job market precisely at the wrong time, and this makes a world of difference. Yet, the challenge that the job market is fundamentally shifting does not go away (Read Education for Employment: Facing Up The Future) - we won't ever be back to business-as-usual.

So, even if under the weight of recession, increased public scrutiny and public scepticism, educators have belatedly woken up to the fact that a great majority of their students today come to Higher Education seeking a path to a successful career, it is still not clear what they could possibly do. We seem to be fairly certain, collectively, that some of today's jobs will disappear due to technological progress, but hardly know what will come in its place. Some futurists indeed contend that this only means the 'bad' jobs will go away - those that can be replaced by a machine will  be - and we would have more 'fulfilling' jobs instead. However, except for the fact that this is how it went before, we have hardly any idea what will come next. At a time when past is no guide to future, this optimism is scary.

This, in a strange way, validate the argument many educators hold out against the persistent media criticism of what they do and the For-Profit schools that boast of a more relevant education. Often, preparing too closely for an employment means losing sight of abilities that will make a learner adaptable and fit for the future. The overwhelming focus of most For-Profit offerings on jobs such as programming, accounting and clerkship at law offices, jobs that are on the endangered list, bear out an essential limitation of the For-Profit model; the media criticism of colleges not teaching enough practical skills are contradicted in the other columns heralding near-arrival of a future where everything is bound to change.

However, while the educators may have a point in resisting the pressures to teach for 'mere employability', the tendency of going for the 'timeless' option instead is also a big mistake. By 'timeless' option, I mean the thinking that 'it was always done this way', a false construct overriding the many changes the ideas of education had to go through in the past, largely in line with the immediate social circumstance. Besides, this also leads the educators seeking certainty inside the academia, giving credence to the complaint that colleges produce too many students largely for itself. 

To go beyond both the trap of disappearing professions and golden age thinking, educators perhaps need a greater understanding of social trends than many other professions. The educators' job description does not come with a mandate for crystal ball gazing, yet the practice of education may be seen as nothing but the facilitation of possibilities, the sensitivities towards the future being an essential part of it. It is quite easy to lose sight of this, in the middle of all the imperative of being political and the pressures of being businesslike.

So, what is that third option? I am stuck by the comment made by Jim Spohrer, IBM's Head of Global University Partnerships, to a question what one needs to do to get hired by IBM, in a recent conference: Mr Spohrer's answer, go and work for the next start-up we want to buy. Said in jest, this answer captures the key to employability in the new age: The route through Enterprise. Essentially the same answer, though in a different context, I hear from Simon Bird, the founder of DotMailer, a successful AIM-listed software company, who was speaking at Croydon Tech City meet yesterday.  Simon was explaining how it is difficult to continue to innovate within a medium size business when you are under all the pressures from public capital markets, and the need to acquire, therefore, of innovative start-ups and products. This is essentially the same drive - innovation, new ideas, fresh thinking - that makes the world go around for a job-hunter. This is the point made by The Economist too, which portrays the entrepreneur as the new labour, and the 'accelerators' as the ' biggest Professional Training system you never heard of' (see story here).

Indeed, this is not about recounting the entrepreneurship fairy tales: Rather, an educator's option may be to appreciate how excruciating, demanding and complex, yet how inevitable those entrepreneurial moments could be, and how education could be the safe house to nurture the entrepreneur in every student rather than letting them fight it out themselves. It is also not just about the gifted few, but rather taking the view that most of us have one gift or another, which, with nurturing, can make us do better than robots. It is about realigning the education system, from the industrial era requirement of being better at process tasks, which now can be done by a robot, to the emergent requirement of being better at uniquely human abilities, social and creative enterprise and tasks requiring flexibility and adaptability. And, this is not just about software, but any other task: The Maker movement is indeed making the craftsmanship hip again, and all the professions, even teaching, is being rediscovered in the light of all the new possibilities that new technologies, and new frames of mind, open up.

In the end, then, I am suggesting that the time to see the university as a big box to hold the students' empty time as the society decides what to do with them (as the beat poet Alan Ginsberg saw it) is over. Also, the current system of multi-tier university system, a layer dedicated to preserving social privileges and all others to reproduce a working class to feed the modern machines, will come under great pressure as technologies get smarter and make the system, at least the bottom half of it, redundant (and challenge the primacy of the top half, by altering the nature of knowledge). The university need a new purpose, and a place for enterprise, a secure space to develop ideas to change the world and connect with other people who share your views or hold a different perspective, is one viable way of redefining the university: The maker of the future possibilities is a new tag many educators would proudly want to wear.   

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