Professionalism in producing professionals | Sunday Observer

Professionalism in producing professionals

The word ‘professional’ is used as a noun, an adjective and even as an adverb at times. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘A professional’ is “A person who has the type of job that needs a high level of education and training.”

The word ‘professionalism’ is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “The combination of all the qualities connected with trained and skilled people” or “All the qualities connected with professionals”. One may even refine this definition to say “All the field-specific qualities which are connected with professionals in a particular field”.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the places where professionals are produced would be the institutions and/or organisations providing such education and training to the people who aspire to become professionals. Universities certainly fall into that category. Therefore, the university staff, especially, the academic staff, should not only have a good understanding of what professionalism means but also possess the skills to impart that knowledge to the trainees, the students. This simply means the members of the university staff have to be professionals themselves.

Identifying professionals

We identify a professional in a particular field by the outcome of his/her actions in that profession. Therefore, if one is to decide whether the staff members of a university are ‘true professionals’ one would look at the quality of the main product, the graduates, of that university. If the product is not up to the expected standard, that is, if the graduates are not “True professionals” the people who produced the graduates, the members of the staff have not been professionals themselves.You may have heard, or even said at times, “the graduates coming out of our state universities do not have the necessary skills to succeed in the industry”.

What this means is that the graduates of state universities lack the skills and professionalism required by the industry. The main factors influencing the producing of these graduates are: a) specific subject knowledge given to them b) the way the knowledge is transferred and the overall experience of being a university student c) capabilities and attitudes of the members of the university staff d) availability of other resources.

Since factors a) and b) are also basically decided by members of the staff, it would be fair to say that the main issues one has to address are the recruitment process and professionalism of the staff, mainly the academic staff. As we know, the majority of the academic staff in our state universities are graduates from the state university system itself. Therefore, one may even argue that this process of inbreeding would certainly create a ‘blind-leading-blind’ type of situation.

I, of course, am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the members of the academic staff, not because I am one of them, but because most of them have gone through postgraduate training in good universities in countries such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, China and India. Therefore, even if one assumes that they had not developed their professionalism when they completed their Bachelor’s Degree at one of our state universities, they certainly have had ample opportunities to improve, if they wished, during their postgraduate training. Hence, the focus area is now narrowed down to just the academic staff and their ability to produce professionals.

As in every sector of society, one can find the whole spectrum of people, among academics too, from those who are totally dedicated to their students’ development most generous, to those who are totally dedicated to their own development most selfish. The majority would be in the middle with a mix of the two qualities, generousness and selfishness, in varying proportions. Even though, at first glance, one might feel that the people in the most selfish extreme should not have been recruited and should not be academics in a university, I think the universities should be able to use, even that selfishness to the advantage of the students.

For example, the most selfish academic would focus only on his/her development in career advancement through promotions and salary increments while contributing the least to the students’ and institutional development. Some may even use their position, of being a university academic, to gain other political and financial advantages for their self enhancement. On the other hand, the most generous academics are totally dedicated to their students’ welfare and through that institutional development. Inevitably, we have to look into the environment and constraints within which the academics have to work.

Social, economic conditions

All academics in the state university system, irrespective of where they are in this spectrum of most selfish to most generous, have to work within the rules and regulations of the particular university, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the Ministry of Higher Education and of course the Government of the country. The academics, like the other citizens of the country, have to live their life under the current social and economic conditions too. That means, if they are to maintain social standards of their choice in today’s world of competition and consumerism, they are forced to maintain a certain monthly income at the least. Therefore, we will see the following six groups of people among the academics too. Those who are:

a) Satisfied with the income and other factors of their life and adjust the lifestyle, if necessary, to a lower materialistic level i) while continuing to provide the best service at the workplace or ii) providing the minimum service at the workplace.

b) Not satisfied with the income and other factors of their life at the moment but willing to adjust the lifestyle, if necessary, to a lower materialistic level i) while providing an average service overcoming the bitterness they feel about their sacrifice ii) providing the minimum service due to the bitterness they feel about their sacrifice.

c) Not satisfied with the income and other factors of their life and not willing to adjust the lifestyle to a lower materialistic level look for other avenues to earn additional money and career advancement points i) while continuing to provide an average service at the workplace ii) while providing the minimum service at the workplace.

There is only one group out of six, namely the group a), who are living a satisfied life and willing to provide their best for the students and the university. We cannot expect everyone to be a true professional, even in this group and, therefore, it is likely that we can only expect less than 17 per cent (one out of six) of the academics to be true professionals. Now let us see why over 83 per cent of the academics, willingly or unwillingly, fail to develop the type of professionalism required to make professionals out of the young adults who enter the universities with the readiness and capabilities of learning what is taught. First, our academics should have a good idea about their main responsibilities, diffusing and generating knowledge. They should also know what this knowledge is used for.

Lack of professionalism

After all, we are talking about shaping the lives of young human beings. Therefore, there is a certain code of ethics in this process of diffusing the knowledge too. This sometimes even describes the collusion between the academics and the Government and the intellectuals challenging the very same knowledge. On the other hand, universities are looking more like corporate entities than collegial. Lack of professionalism in the graduates is sometimes described as a result of the wide gap between the universities and the industrial world. Therefore, there is a conscious effort to fill that gap as a quick solution to the problem. But, what most stakeholders don’t see are the side effects of such unjustified impulsive solutions given to complicated problems that have numerous other factors influencing the causes of the problem.

The concepts and practices of the corporate world have slowly crawled into the university system as a way to encourage the productivity, efficiency and value for money. The staff development has been given such a prominent role in an individual academic’s career that one wouldn’t get the confirmation if one doesn’t complete the designated course which supposedly trains one to be an effective academic. But if the graduates of state universities still lack professionalism then that may be an indication that all such staff development programs have not helped much either. On the contrary, this corporate culture seems to promote individualism rather than community, efficiency rather than justice, competition rather than cooperation and fund generation rather than knowledge generation.

The state is in the process of cutting down funding for state universities and encouraging them to generate their own funds by offering fee levying courses and external degree programs and developing public private partnerships as much as possible. Universities are to reduce using public money but deliver more in market terms. In this context of commercialisation of education academics are expected to do more research and administrative work to be appraised and accountable more to the Government rather than the students. Under these circumstances, I think, it will not be a difficult task to see why the academics have failed to improve their professionalism in order to increase the probability of producing professional graduates. The industry at least points this deficiency out but there is no public debate about where our higher education is heading, especially, in defining the role of the state institutions in the higher education sector. The public is mostly counting on those academics at the ‘Most Generous’ end of the spectrum to save the graduates of the state universities while most of the academics themselves are caught in this market culture to the extent where they end up spending money to send their own children to universities in other countries for education.

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])

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