Tuesday, April 04, 2017

On Interfaces Between Higher Education and Work

There is no longer an automatic progression from higher education to work. There was perhaps never was one, but usually the jobs that needed middle level cognitive skills usually outnumbered people having appropriate training - and, therefore, the middle class assumption that a college education leads to a job had some basis.

Two things happened since, particularly since the 1990s:

1. The number of middle level jobs have not grown in proportion of the growth in college enrolment. The reason for this is manifold, but one key factor in this is the use of computers, advanced communication and other labour saving technologies at work. At the same time, governments of different countries focused on creating middle class economies encouraged, and made possible through expansion of the higher education system, more people to go to college. This trend varied from country to country, as modern communication meant some jobs got shipped out to countries like India, creating middle skill jobs faster than college enrolment; however, over a longer time frame - two decades now - expansion of college enrolment duly caught up and job creation eventually slowed.

2. As middle skill job growth stagnated, they also become either more specialised or more generalised. This may seem a contradiction of terms, but different kinds of jobs changed differently, but both trends impacted education-to-employment transition in different ways. There are some jobs, mostly in new technology areas, became very specialised, demanding, from an applicant, in-depth and practical competence with tools of trade. And, yet, others, in functional areas, such as Accounting, Management, Marketing etc., which were traditionally the specialised jobs, became combined, demanding not just professional competence but 'soft skills' and ability to do a wide range of work, including handling the IT. So, it was no longer enough to be a Computer Programmer, as universities prepared them: One needed to be a specialist in one or the other language or platforms (or be relegated to miscellaneous tasks, such as testing, account management or sales). On the other end of the spectrum, it was no longer enough to be just an Accountant - one needed to be able to speak to customers, be able to handle the IT system, and even show enterprise and solve problems outside one's domain.

However, as the jobs changed, Higher Education changed too. There was this huge expansion, as the Governments of different countries encouraged For-Profit businesses to start offering Higher Education, often creating a system of public subsidies to make it attractive. But there were other changes too, which are significant for this conversation. 

1. The expansion of business courses was one important factor, particularly as more and more Accounting, Marketing and Management courses showed up Higher Education catalogue. Higher Education Institutions were getting into functional areas, encouraging students to do an early specialisation. Just as these professions were going the other direction, Higher Education institutions were trying to step into a space traditionally filled by professional training companies, and were essentially adapting themselves into the model.

2. In computing, it was the reverse, as Higher Education sector was often adapting down, from the Computer Science and Engineering departments of top universities to the more generalised space that new, smaller, For-Profit institutions wanted to serve. So, there were these degrees like B Sc in IT, an attempt to create non-mathematical Computer Programming courses which are not necessarily tied to one tool or another - and in theory, can be used as a platform for any tool! This was, again, the opposite of how the jobs were changing.

This - a sort of scissors crisis where Higher Ed and the world of work seem to be moving in opposite direction - presents a challenge to create interfaces between the two. The usual mechanisms - industry executives on curriculum board, guest lectures and internships - fall short. Higher Education 'curriculum' are ill-suited to address 'soft skill' requirements of business functions (they are called 'soft skills' for a reason); it is also too static to respond to changing specificity of the technology trades. Guest lectures sit outside the curriculum and it is hard to engage students, particularly early in the life-cycle (when they should really engage), and internships are often too ephemeral and suffer the same problem as guest lectures. That Higher Education is out of step with the world of work is perhaps apparent in the problem of graduate unemployment and underemployment at one hand, and the talent crunch on the other, but there is no ready-at-hand mechanism to solve the problem.

While all this makes the question of education-to-work transition urgent and important, they also introduce new challenges. Most people dealing with the question approaches it in one of the two ways - either by being reverential about the tools and structures of Higher Education, as if they are perennial and immutable, or by being completely dismissive about it. In either way, they take a static perspective. Those working in Higher Education see everything as a 'knowledge problem', and imagine solving it through better design of curriculum and assessments. Those working outside Higher Education identify the limitations of the curriculum but insufficiently recognise the challenges posed by the mutation of work and skills. With some generalisation, one could say that the educators are trying to mould yesterday's educational ideas for tomorrow's jobs and those outside are trying to design futuristic educational ideas for yesterday's jobs.

The solution, instead, lies in recognising the changes not just in education, but in society and work. And, one must be quite radical about it. The idea of 'Higher Education' should be questioned - higher as compared to what? One must remember that this is a 'value-laden' expression now - not just advanced education, but by definition distinct from vocational education - and this makes our ideas about Higher Ed quite limited. For example, ideas such as Apprenticeships are never fully accepted in Higher Education, because of its roots in the trades outside the gentlemanly pursuits of educated people. Despite the Great Expansion, universities, and particularly the new ones set up for the purpose of making students employable, scoff at the idea of Education-for-Employment being central to their enterprise, making building effective interfaces subject to continuous sniping from faculty members. 

However, the interface between education and work is the most exciting design issues today. While the general scenario is one of doom-and-gloom, as I portray above, there are indeed great experiments underway both within the Higher Ed sector and without. There are a number of employers creating fascinating interfaces - new style apprenticeships, learning communities etc - that can change education. And, some educators more than others are also coming up with new solutions and aggressively implementing them. However, these initiatives are usually seen as 'forward-looking', i.e., not mainstream, and herein lies the problem: The burden of bad ideas, within educational institutions, in regulatory frameworks and in private equity fuelled crusading start-ups, is still heavy enough to rule out a serious and engaged search of interfaces (and, this must be in plural) that may actually work.



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