Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Education for Employment: What Private Businesses Can Do?

Because businesses need more and more skilled people to do the jobs, they are the key beneficiaries of education. This has not always been the case - the Church and the Government needed educated people more than businesses until very recently - but in a secular society and with the age of small governments, that has changed. Today, the businesses are perhaps the largest recipient of the educated people, and for most students, education is about preparing for a career in business. Indeed, this does not mean that education does not have any other purpose, but it is best to recognise this changing perspective about education.

What the educators should, or shouldn't, do in this changed context gets discussed all too often. However, what does not get proportionate attention is what businesses need to do. The businesses often complain that they don't get the trained manpower that they need to remain competitive, and they expect the education sector to deliver them what they need, but they wouldn't similarly step up their efforts to facilitate the education that they may want provided. The governmental resources to provide an education that will satisfy the business' requirements are clearly inadequate; and even if the education is privately funded by the students, it is difficult for the educators to balance off all the constituents, including the students, to create an employment focused education.

In this context, it is appropriate to talk about the role of private businesses themselves in bridging the employability gap. The direct engagement of the businesses into the education process, through exchange of know-how, facilitation of experiential learning and provision of funding, can all help make education more relevant to businesses. All these are indeed better than complaining endlessly about the limitations of the traditional education process, and paying a heavy cost in terms of sub-optimal recruitment pipeline.

That businesses should be more engaged in education is already a part of the global conversation, but the current paradigm may be counter-productive. Some countries, like China and India, are experimenting with the ideas of a CSR tax, which is a forced mechanism for businesses to contribute to social causes, education among them. While this works at one level, there is a renewed commitment and expanded commitment among many Indian and Chinese companies, this somewhat undermines the point that the businesses need a learned society for its own sake. With short term earning pressures weighing in on every move of the executives in modern businesses, a business case is far more convincing than any other sort of persuasion. And, taxation, while effective in the short run, may end up undermining a greater consciousness among the businesses about what they need to do to help develop a better workforce.

Besides, the taxation approach, while rightly focusing on the problem of educational access, somewhat ignores the challenge of educational quality and relevance. The latter is, in the context of rapidly changing society, at least as big a problem. While the suggestion that one should focus on Quality but not Access is nonsensical, the opposite is also equally wrong. However, this is the implicit argument in the conversation behind the CSR tax, that one needs to solve the problem of access first (and quality and relevance can be thought about later). This does not work, because a bad education is often worse than no education: While the countries have increased the numbers going into education over the last two decades, the numbers dropping out has soared, not just in absolute terms, but also as a percentage of people going into education at every level. And, graduates found unemployable topped up this problem further. The CSR approach to education does nothing to encourage businesses to join the conversation about relevant education for their own sake, which arguably would have a much greater impact, both in convincing businesses about their commitment to education as well as overall educational impact.

In fact, businesses can do a lot in injecting result orientation and innovation in education. In fact, where they play a role, they do such things. While most of these things are viewed with suspicion by educators, these are basic values of modern business. If the students are to prepare for a career in business, they are better off going through a system which are informed by such values. Indeed, no one is suggesting that there will be one monolithic system of education and businesses will do all of it; the state will still have a role to play and so will the religious and community organisations. But businesses can involve itself within the context of sectors or types of institutions (say Business or Engineering Schools) and innovations in these sectors, if effective and relevant, can spread to other places. 

However, to get the innovation and result orientation going, the businesses will need to be more involved. Currently, it is all about doing good, which translates into some limited amount of money and mostly hands off engagement, alongside lots of window-dressing to make the business look good. The little money that flows in also goes mostly into 'trophy items', Academic Chairs, Research Centres, or at best Scholarships, and most of these remain one-off, unsustained and of limited impact for both the student and the respective businesses themselves. An urgent conversation needs to happen towards how best to make businesses create a sustained commitment, through greater involvement and clear linkages to its own strategic goals: Getting the businesses on the table to have this conversation is perhaps the best way to enhance employability. 

 

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