Turning Qualifications To Jobs

UGC’s recent guidelines asking HEI’s to ensure 50% students get to Jobs is aspirational as well as daunting for Universities

When Abraham Lincoln said “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”, he probably did not have our education system in mind. Medieval Universities trained students on religion and religious administration. Starting in the 15th and the 16th Centuries, Universities evolved to train officers to manage overseas territories and colonies. After the Industrial Revolution, Universities changed again, teaching workers how to work in structured factories. However, the structure and type of education the Universities delivered hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years whereas the world has moved on. Most Universities have trapped themselves inside organizations that have very specific incentives: that push them to become more expensive, that push them to deprioritize the quality of education, and that pushes them towards unhealthy competition. Ultimately, those larger forces and organizational structures are the root cause of most of University’s problems. Education that does not link itself to a purpose, which at most times is either employment, fulfillment or enrichment, devalues itself at the root.

There is growing anxiety across the world about higher education. Rising fees, combined with shrinking financial and educational returns, are undermining at least the perception that university is a good investment. University education is designed to act as a slipway, launching students into the wider world in the expectation that the currents will guide them into a job. In practice, many people get stuck in the doldrums because employers demand evidence of specific skills and experience even from entry-level candidates. Whether this counts as a skills gap is a matter of debate, nonetheless, there is a need for pathways that lead individuals into jobs.

As a nation, we can change that – and we must. We must reset the incentives that underpin the system so the focus is on the outcome that matters. The heightened need for college and the far greater diversity of the population seeking it defines both the challenge and the amazing opportunity ahead of us. The answer, I believe, requires three major shifts –

first, focusing much more on outcomes, rather than on inputs

second, driving desperately-needed innovation 

and third, a meaningful collaboration between academia and industry

Higher education must be an equalizer of opportunity. We must shift incentives at every level to focus on student success, not just on access. When students win, everyone wins. But when they lose, every part of the system should share responsibility. Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver quality education. So should regulators and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law. By the same token, institutions should be rewarded for doing the right thing –taking in students who are struggling and helping them succeed. Collectively, we must focus less on inputs—like enrolment, infrastructure, and spending—and build a system in which student learning, graduation and going on to get good jobs to count most. 

The old-school traditional higher education model held place and time constant. Major changes are coming in the next generation, of a kind and magnitude that exceed the expectations of almost everyone currently engaged with a traditional University. Rather than people only being able to “go to college” in a few, scarce expensive places, you’ll essentially be able to go to college from almost anywhere. Universities of the Future shall be everywhere – online, on-campus and on-the-job!

Excellence plus equity is a powerful win-win. The Universities will need to collaborate and work closely with the industry to align their course curriculum and the pedagogy to the demands of the market. Universities would need to have information on where demand from employers is greatest and what skills job seekers need. Universities will need to collaborate with professional specialist organizations with a decent understanding of wider trends that can help them connect with the industry, help build technology platforms, create short-term programs to fill skill gaps and build connectivity. Few Universities in India like Aligarh Muslim University, Acharya Nagarjuna University, LN Mithila University and Netaji Subhas Open University have started taking steps in this direction.

Barrack Obama, during his address to the NAACP, said, “Justice is not only the absence of oppression; it is the presence of opportunity.” The current Quality mandate from UGC providing guidelines to Universities to focus on outcomes seems to be well meant. Boosting student success through shared responsibility and accountability for outcomes seems to be the only way forward. We will need to promote innovation and competition through transparency and evidence of what works. We will have to strive to reward success, especially where universities are demonstrating their commitment to better serving disadvantaged students. The simple fact is, every hard-working student in this country must have a real opportunity to achieve a meaningful, affordable degree. India’s prosperity, our democracy, and our identity as world’s fastest growing economy depend on it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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