Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Gold Standard of 'Experience'

There is a certain role of 'degree' and 'diploma' in our society. 

These, supported by a generally elaborate regulation structure and recognition from Governments, are not unlike the currency: A diploma holder's worth is transparent and understood generally as a mark of competence.

Also, it is important to acknowledge the link between the degree and diploma and commercial employment. We can indulge in as much fantasy about monastic life and pure quest of knowledge for its own sake, but most of the state-funded, modern, mass education system is closely tied to the requirements of the industrial society and its employers, both state and commercial houses [as well as the Research Universities, which should be seen as a specific kind of employer with a specific requirement].

Degrees and Diplomas, therefore, are currencies of competence, to be accepted by the employers. However, we have arrived at a stage where the regulation structure is too elaborate and state recognition is omnipresent, and recognition has become be-all and end-all in the education trade. The purpose, recognition by the employers as mark of competence, has been lost in the mire of approvals, structured for its own sake. 

However, while the system is broken and many people, on all sides of the equation, seems to acknowledge this, we usually still stick to it for want of an alternative. The pursuit of a diploma may waste valuable time and make little sense, we still tend to do this in the belief that there is nothing else that would be recognised by the employers. The banks and other funding organisations, which complain all too often and all too loudly about the lack of employability of students affecting their ability to repay education debt, continue to hand out more loans for degrees they know do not work.

This is not unusual. Degree and Diploma are the paradigms we live within, and they are so omnipotent that we forget to see that they are ideas with a history, rooted in economic necessities of a certain kind and meant to serve a particular purpose. Indeed, our attempts at history, linking the medieval monasteries and guilds to the modern education system as if in a natural succession, obscure the paradigm shifts in education: The idea of college in the US celebrate the pre-colonial institutions rather than the deliberateness of Morrill Act, in England, the Oxbridge mystic obscure the industrial imperatives of nineteenth century metropolitan universities. The admission of women, mass education, workers' education are all seen as footnotes in the history of post-secondary education, still enthralled with its imagined history of contemplative communities, rather than the breaking of the old and making a new idea that we live by today.

Arguably, the employers shifting away from the 'Diploma' as an automatic proxy of competence tells us that we have reached that moment of shift, though being in it, though, being frogs in boiling water, we do not know any alternative reality. But, there is one - and one can figure it out quickly if one is talking to employers: They want Experience! More and more, employers want to broaden their spectrum and hire people who can demonstrate competence not by possessing a piece of paper, but by able to show that they have done things. Experience - work experience, experience of life, demonstration of real abilities - is sought by employers, and they are not ready to accept that degrees guarantee the same.

I have been working with a large multinational IT company for some time, trying to develop a strategic talent pipeline for them. When I started, about two years ago, their minimum cut-off was an Engineering graduate: Anyone wanting a job needed to have an Engineering degree first. They acknowledged the degree is not enough though - 80% of their recruits were not fit for purpose - and wanted us to build a system that gives them 'experience'. 

This should all sound very familiar to all the university graduates who toil away for nothing as interns, and those who are stuck with their degrees but no job. But this is not the story I am telling here. While we built the system they desired, the conversation in the company has changed dramatically: This company, a top employer and a great brand known for its path-breaking research and global reach, now wants to hire through 'hackathons', open events which anyone can join, with degrees or not. This is one of those defining moments when a major employer is trying to change the game, and creating a new currency more directly linked to ability than the proxy of a diploma.

This will happen more and more, I expect. And, in this world of employers looking away from the degree, there is still a currency what everyone would accept: Experience. Real life, hands on work experience, properly credentialed and referenced, is already more valuable than degrees : This is what internships are for and this is why they make such a huge difference. As the spotlight falls on it, there will be more and more education providers who would add a third dimension to it - transparently assessed - to make it all the things Diplomas should be: Transferable, Recognised, Transparent. 

So, to all those who argue that Diplomas will survive because they are transferable, this should be a penny-dropping moment: What good is transferability when acceptance is a problem in the first place? And, indeed, once we open our eyes to the possibilities of Credentialed, Referenced, Transparently Assessed Experience - imagine LinkedIn profiles with attached work portfolios and more - we would discover the shift away from useless diplomas and to a world of Experience as the gold standard of competence.






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