The Indian Employability Challenge And An Experiential Learning Solution

Dr Manish Malhotra, Co-Founder and Chairman, and Professor Duncan Bentley, Vice-Chancellor and President, Federation University Australia in conversation with Dr Annurag Batra, Editor-in-Chief and Chairman, BW Businessworld

Dr Annurag Batra, Professor Duncan Bentley & Dr Manish Malhotra is working in partnership with Federation University Australia to bring a unique programme to India, designed to enhance student employability in the digital age through experiential education. By replicating the workplace environment and its focus on task delivery, Experiential Microcredentials (XPMCs) combine with a traditional degree to maximise outcomes in both learning and employment. Dr Annurag Batra of BW Businessworld sat down with the key figures in this transformative new approach:

How has your past experience helped you in introducing to India?

Manish Malhotra: It all started when I began this business twenty years ago in Australia, where I finished my PhD and set up a technology college in association with, and affiliated with, Federation University Australia. We experienced terrific demand for almost twenty years, with over 30,000 Indian students being taught through our colleges, but in the last few years, we’ve found that the market was changing dramatically, predominantly because of the new digital economy. Automation in a country like India threatens up to 69 per cent of future jobs, and the challenge was to bring this programme to India with the same quality as in Australia but at the Indian price level, which was not an easy problem to solve. 

We came up with a product called Experiential Microcredentials (XPMCs), where we are delivering projects that are co-created with industry experts and higher education institutes, from our Australia and UK offices. We are embedding this into the Indian ecosystem through educational institutions here so that students can take advantage of experiential training and have real-life experiences even before completing their qualifications. So far we have signed up 68 colleges across the country, and hopefully more going forward. We want to create graduates who are ready to work!

What has changed in the skills and employability space due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Duncan Bentley: In some ways, Covid-19 acted as a catalyst for us to concentrate on what it takes to become part of a much more digital world – it was happening already, but the pandemic was an accelerator.

If you look at any of the big organisations like BCG, McKinsey, and so on, what they’re looking at is how businesses can cope with the digital transformation, to be able to survive in a highly globally connected world where the geopolitical environment is becoming more challenging… How do you find the skills that are needed for a twenty-first-century career?

One of the main challenges is that the academic curriculum has for too long been driven by traditional market demand without actually looking at where the skills are going… I can ask an app on my phone for almost any knowledge content that I need – for example, I tried ChatGPT the other day and it gave me a curriculum for an international tax law that covered most of the necessary technical content. What it cannot do, however, is bring in the human dimension of creativity, collaboration, cultural understanding and problem-solving using that knowledge.

This is what employers are really asking for post-pandemic. They want graduates who have these capabilities because they do not have the time and resources to train them because the economy is powering away. We've got a talent war and we've got to be able to deliver to the customers now. is drawing from what we have built up in Australia over 150 years and refined to be able to deliver what employers want in graduates.

How can we better teach soft skills to students? What role do they have in employability?

DB: We have had a long tradition of cooperating with industry and bringing them into the design, delivery, and training of students. As a cooperative university, every single one of our students needs to have the ability to embrace soft skills, regardless of their academic discipline. 'Soft skills' is such a nebulous name, it suggests that they are somehow less important than some of the other skills. But in fact, that is the critical human dimension that we bring to any problem.

The concept of imagination, curiosity and creativity is very important to problem-solving, as seen in academic studies, and it this that we've tried to distil into the XPMC products. Students can experience those elements that bring an expert interpretive framework to any problem in which the human dimension sits on top of knowledge and technical skills.

What made Federation University want to partner with

DB: Federation University has been working with Dr Malhotra for decades. We know he's an incredibly insightful entrepreneur and one of the things that we have done collaboratively is to really push the boundaries of education, learning and knowledge.

Recently, the Indian Minister of Education came to Australia from India and put out a challenge. While Indian-born migrants are likely to become the top migrant group in Australia, India needs to have the same capability to offer these opportunities in India. With the forward-thinking National Education Policy 2020, we saw this as an opportunity to work with colleges that are looking for these solutions as part of their curriculum that will enable their students to be sought-after graduates.

Thanks to our cooperative approach we are directly working with industry and it has made us number one in employment for undergraduates in Australia. There is a direct causation between working in an environment before you graduate and your life-long success and earnings.

With this new project with, we wanted to see if we could provide that gold-standard international credential that Australian universities have and support employability initiatives in India. We are here for the long term as we see this as a critical opportunity not just for India but then Asia and the rest of the world.


What products are you launching and how do you plan to scale these in India?

MM: The first product that we are launching out of is the XPMC, a short form for Experiential Microcredential. When we started looking at this problem in India, we realised that the gap between education and employability is quite substantial, it's huge. Now a lot of Indian institutions – engineering colleges, MBA schools – are trying to dissolve that, but in all fairness, individual work is not enough. We did a conference last year and we invited a lot of leaders across India to talk about this problem, and we realised that there needs to be a solution which is common to all colleges and that can be built to replicate and scale in India.

These experiential experiences are three-month projects that we have worked on with industry to create a simulated work environment that can be easily provided within the existing education ecosystem in India. The colleges we have signed up with are a mix of engineering, B-Tech and MBA institutes. We have now created these projects for experiential learning alongside them.

We are aiming for different levels of experiences that will get students started as soon as they begin university. So the projects will be ongoing alongside the degree programmes. This provides a simulated work environment and real experience of a workplace. It is run on Agile methodology, much like a workplace, so there are no lectures or learning management systems, instead, there will be project managers and they will need to find task-based solutions, just like in the industry. They have project management software and that's what we are using, replicating industry standards as much as we can.

We're starting with two XPMCs in the month of February, in digital finance and cyber security. We have another seven streams that we'll be launching this year, including product management, artificial intelligence, digital transformation, supply chain, advanced manufacturing and health informatics. We are launching all these experiential projects this year and we have had an overwhelming response from our education partners in India: they absolutely think it's a brilliant idea because it will help them to move into this space.

How do educators need to reorient their mindsets for this new reality?

DB: I think one of the crucial elements is that we need to move much more to authentic student-centred learning, where students are key participants. When you go into the workplace, it is self-motivation and engagement with all the experiences you’re having that allow you to learn and improve the next time that you face the same problem. Experts learn from their experience, taking in what they did well, and what they didn’t do and then applying that going forward. 

For too long, education has tended to focus on large classrooms of the traditional kind, because we haven’t had the wonder of the digital and hybrid environment… For example, in Germany, I found a lecture theatre that had not changed in about three hundred years! Universities are one of the few places on Earth where you can go and find pretty much the same setup that has been there for hundreds of years. That’s what we’ve got to change, and technology allows us to do that – it allows us to move from learning as information transmission to engaging fully with it.

Is EdTech there to supplement mainstream education or compete with it? What is your view on EdTech?

DB: I think EdTech is absolutely wonderful, from augmented reality, virtual reality, simulations, and all the support systems. It’s the same in any sector: technology is making what we do so much more effective, so much better, we need to embrace it, engage it, and incorporate it into everything we do. 

MM: In EdTech, especially with something like the XPMC, technology is huge: we cannot scale experiential training across India without the right platform. However, it’s not a substitute for a university degree, it’s there to complement them: we want to work with existing education providers to supply a better learning experience and help promote lifelong learning.

Where will you be in 12 months?

DB: It’s going to take time before any new product is broadly accepted, but it’s amazing how in the last nine months we’ve seen such interest from so many colleges across the country and I would like us to start rolling out the XPMC: I really want to hear from students and colleges about how much they’ve got out of it… I also want to see employers be equally excited about taking on these new graduates: in about twelve months we should have seen batches actually graduating, so we should see a tangible difference soon.

MM: We would like to see that we have now captured the profile of work readiness for each student – in the end, scalability will only be achieved if we can map it with the work readiness score for individual job profiles. Our long-term goal is to have the individual profiles of students who are building stacks of microcredentials and then mapping them with job profiles. In the next six to nine months, we will see most of our college partners adopting the XPMC, and all the data generated from that will help us refine the project further.

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