Friday, March 13, 2015

Employer Engagement In Higher Education

It is one of the things everyone wants to do and no one knows how. In theory, it works perfectly - employers need skilled people and educators can benefit from the insights and experience employers can bring to table - but, in practice, the time horizons of employers and educators are really very different. In the forever changing and intensely competitive world of business, there is little visibility of what comes next, a year from now, and there is little slack to devote to such long term considerations, at least at the operational level. Education, by definition, is a forward-looking enterprise, and any educator claiming to have a magic potion to skill people in a few weeks can safely be assumed to be a charlatan. And, therefore, despite the best of intentions, serious and substantiative Employer Engagement in Higher Education has remained one of those desirable, but unrealised, projects.

The time horizon issue is real, but it is not the only reason why Employer engagement is so hard. There are other, more avoidable, reasons why this engagement does not happen. These are things which educators can control, rather than complaining about the short-termism of the Employers. In fact, if and when educators address these issues and change their approach, one could reasonably expect the employers to see a framework they can really engage into. 

First, one needs to start with intent. Most educators pursue employers not really to engage with them or to understand their requirements, but to dangle their job prospects in front of applicants to get greater enrollment. This is partially because the educators are often tied to a framework defined by the regulators, and they can only do cosmetic changes to really address what the employers want. Instead, all they demand from the employers is their blessing - for marketing purposes. Given that only a handful of employers are being chased by all educators around the world, it is perhaps all too easy for the employers to see through this - and indeed, the ones which engage with educators are burnt by their experience when the dated curricula do not, as expected, produce the results for them. 

Second, as alluded to in the previous point, the educators often lack flexibility to really respond to employers requirements. They are often talking about only cosmetic changes, sitting atop a large pile of courses and assessments to keep the regulators happy. The insincerity of Employer Engagement is further magnified by the inflexibility of educational design. Most educators do not have the courage to defy the existing structures and create frameworks which educators can participate into. Indeed, employers themselves are often taking up the space, offering nano-degrees and micro-degrees etc. But, the educators still remain wedded to the prestige game, only allowing the employers a hands-off engagement. 

Third, because of the nature of the engagement, cosmetic and pursued for marketing purposes, educators often engage with the wrong kind of employers, who may not have a skills problem. From the marketing point of view, the employers one needs are the big brands, those which can attract the students to enroll. However, the bigger the brand, they have lesser problems in attracting better talent at a cheaper cost, given that the traditional Higher Ed system is churning out more graduates than ever. They are the ones least likely to participate in an experiment, as their business models are well set. In fact, experiments can be harmful to them, or so they think, if they engage with educators who do not come from the prestige end of the market - effectively making them part of the same approach that keeps educators away from employers in the first place. Indeed, there are other employers, sectors which are underserved, brands that are less known, less glamourous jobs (think outside banking and technology), but no one wants to engage with them. 

Finally, to top up the wrong approach combined with wrong employers, the educators also have the problem of wrong language. While the employers employ, the diffusion of modern linguistic philosophy across all disciplines allow educators a presumptive monopoly over meaning. When one talks about critical thinking, it is presumed that there is a certain way of defining it - the educators way - and all other ways of thinking about these terms are considered to be pedestrian. Lost in this engagement about what things really mean (employers often marvel how much time is spent by academics dissecting meaning of the words they thought were commonplace) is that meaning is constructed socially - and indeed, employers have a say. 

So, while there is indeed a mismatch of time horizons between educators and employers, the bigger problems come from insincerity in engagement, inflexibility in approach, incompatibility of requirements and incomprehension of the language in use. An effective strategy of employer engagement should address all these four issues - indeed, open the educational blackbox and embrace the employers with sincerity and seriousness - and this may address one of the biggest issues in modern Higher Education.



 


 


 


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