From higher education to hire education | Sunday Observer

From higher education to hire education

7 June, 2020

Most of the employers, from the Government and the private sector, have often claimed that graduates (with non-professional degrees) from our state universities are not capable of handling the jobs that are available in the market. They also claim that the mismatch is hurting both the employers and the graduates who are waiting to be employed.

Therefore, the main suggestion, often made by the employers to the higher education sector, is to stop teaching outdated courses and revise the syllabi and the degree programs to match the current needs of the industry. In situations where graduates from Sri Lankan state universities and from foreign universities compete for a job, more often than not, it is one of the candidates with a degree from a foreign university who would get the job.

Employers say that it is usually not because the foreign degree holders have a better knowledge of the subjects they had studied at the university but due to their communication skills, other ‘soft skills’ and leadership qualities they showed during the interview.

Therefore, analysing these claims carefully, without taking them at their face value before making any decisions, which should be the default practice, especially, of any higher education institute any way, is very important for the relevant people making the decisions and corresponding policies. Following are some of the key areas one could explore further regarding this issue.

One of the first things to take note of is that if the hiring of the person was due to the superiority of the soft skills, communication skills and leadership qualities and not due to any superiority of the knowledge of the subject matter shown by the candidate with a degree from a foreign university, then the suggestion to change the syllabi and the degree program of the Sri Lankan state universities to fix the problem would be more like suggesting to change the pillow to cure a headache. A fact even more interesting than that, though most of the Sri Lankans probably haven’t even thought about is that, this mismatch between the graduates coming out of the universities and the existing job market at the time is not unique to Sri Lanka. One can find similar claims made by the employers in Australia, European countries and even in the United States. What that means then is that the graduate of one of those foreign universities who got the job in Sri Lanka is denying that opportunity to a graduate from one of the state universities in the country and may very well have been a misfit for the job market of the country where the university he/she graduated from is located.

In any case, since most of the job interviews in Sri Lanka are conducted in English, this major difference employers see is mainly due to the familiarity and the fluency of the English language shown by the candidates.

What is important is not only being able to understand and speak English but also being able to impress the interview panel with a confidence that the fluency of the language itself brings, with the social etiquette coming from the cultural background of the language, which a person studying in another country can easily achieve.

Secondly, the two buzzwords seen and heard in this arena are ‘Leadership’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’. Employers often say that they want to see employees with good leadership qualities. I, for one, have always wondered why, since an employee with good leadership qualities is almost automatically marked as a threat and his boss will do everything in his/her power to keep that employee from advancing any closer to a leadership position.

Therefore, I think what they probably mean is that they want employees, especially if they hire one with a basic degree, to have good managerial qualities. Only when the organisation is looking for a CEO, would the Board of Directors probably search for a candidate with real leadership qualities, assuming that the Board understands what a real leader looks and sounds like.

Employers are not particularly looking for ‘entrepreneurship’ as one of the qualities an employee must have since the word usually refers to the activities of setting up new businesses. But, a graduate showing qualities of entrepreneurship would stand a better chance of being hired as long as his entrepreneurial ambitions are not a threat to the employer.

Instead of entrepreneurs, the employers should try to hire ‘Intrapreneurs’ who can help the organisation with innovative solutions to their problems. On the other hand, both the words ‘leadership’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ are often used by the institutes of higher education to market themselves saying that their graduates cultivate and come out with good leadership and entrepreneurship qualities. Most of the institutions use these two words in their ‘Graduate Profile’ which would be printed beautifully in their students’ handbook and also in all their propaganda material though no one, not even the students, at the graduation would be checking whether the institute has really achieved those targets. Some institutions even have courses teaching these trades to their students though the possibility of teaching leadership and/or entrepreneurship is questionable. One may be able to share examples of leaders, show what common qualities leaders have and what they have done and similar facts, perhaps inspiring the students, but not making leaders out of them. Similarly, one may be able to share all the different factors to look into when starting a business and share stories about successful entrepreneurs and other relevant facts but not making entrepreneurs out of them. In order to optimise the impact on the students, the institution itself should have true leaders at least in some of the key positions and the institution should not hesitate to use entrepreneurial skills of its own in the process.

Recent studies show that most of the employers list problem-solving, collaboration, communication, adaptability, empathy, resilience, integrity, leadership and emotional quotient as most valued skills. In this digital age where artificial intelligence is the common medium of interactions candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more and more valuable in the job market. The world Economic Forum in its 2016 report The Future of Jobs states that 65% of children entering primary school today will be employed in jobs that do not exist yet. Employment will not be something one seeks after education but the two will be switching back and forth depending on the changes happening in the knowledge economy. Success in the future will not be defined by a degree, but by the ability to stay in the loop of learn, apply, adapt and then unlearn, relearn, apply and adapt. It is also not just universities. If governments and businesses are not going to invest in more jobs than the amount of job seekers at any given point of time, of course it becomes a number game where any one of these parties can point the finger at the other. Having said all of that, it will be misleading if I did not mention that the old adage “It is not what you know but who you know” still holds true all over the world.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]