As a staffing firm, TeamLease sadly doesn’t hire 95% of the youngsters who come to it for a job. As a training firm, it estimates that 40% of these job-interview rejects need more than a year of “repair” or “preparation” to make them truly job-ready. But when we try and enrol our job-interview rejects for longer courses, many candidates or their parents tell us that they have already been enrolled in three-year college degree courses. They tell us that a degree is prerequisite “social signalling” for getting married— among other things—but they come to us for stuff that a degree does not get them—a job or job training.
While short-term vocational courses can work for many kids, we unfortunately find that most candidates need more than short-term repair. But where does this partition in the cerebral cortex of students and parents, between the institutions that give them a degree, a job and job-relevant education, come from?
I’d like to make the case that this unintended outcome of higher education public policy arises from trying to control quality by controlling quantity. The licence raj in colleges and universities blunts competition, quality and innovation. So most accredited institutions of higher education only teach 180 days a year, do a poor job of teaching soft and English skills, and have poor employer linkages that could create curriculum relevance and internships. Naturally, courses at these institutions don’t lead to jobs.
This higher education emergency creates two policy priorities—a massive expansion of the current system to create competition, and the formation of a new system of community colleges that can innovate at the intersection of education and employment (self-interest disclosure: TeamLease is currently working on community colleges in some states).
The first priority, of expanding existing universities and creating new ones, will only materialize after the current conceptual and spiritual hostility to non-government universities at the University Grants Commission is reviewed. As a country we should not care if a university is private or public, but whether it is good or bad. China has more than doubled the number of its universities—from 1,022 to 2,263—in the last decade, and the number of students enrolled in degree courses there has risen from one million in 1997 to five million now. Some of this quantity is of low quality, but as engineering colleges in South India have shown, quantity and competition are the only ways to raise quality standards and breed innovation.
The second priority is creating a mezzanine layer of community colleges between higher education and schools. Polytechnics have been unable to fulfil this role because of birth defects in funding, staffing, infrastructure and labour market linkages.
Community colleges are not a legal definition, but a state of mind. These colleges will offer two-year associate degrees that are not normal degrees on a diet, but vocational training on steroids. They will offer blended learning with an embedded semester of internship (learning-by-doing and learning-while-earning) and employers will be at the heart of admission, curriculum and certification. They will work 224 days a year (instead of the current 180) and 6 hours a day (instead of the current 5). These extra 444 contact hours every year will be used for employability. These community colleges will take education to people rather than people to education, i.e. instead of one campus of 500 acres, we should have 1,000 campuses of half an acre each. They will offer distributed education at reasonable cost (Rs50-150 per hour). A new community college system— lower costs, distributed delivery and employer linkages—will improve student access and greatly increase our education inclusiveness.
Current university regulators and academics probably base their objections to non-government university expansion and community colleges on their agreement with Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), who wrote that “A university should be about education—teaching students, making them cultured individuals, and equal to ‘the height of their time’. They will have an understanding, not technical or economic but spiritual, of the particular qualities and challenges of the age and what it calls for from its most enlightened souls.”
Who I am—somebody who chose his parents wisely and went to elite educational institutions— couldn’t agree more with Gasset. But what I do—work for a people supply chain company which has hired only 5% of the kids that come to it—violently disagrees. Culture, enlightenment and spirituality are empty words without a job. Woody Allen once said that the advantage of being bisexual is that you double your chance of finding a date. India can and must create institutions of higher education that lead to both a degree and a job.
Manish Sabharwal is chairman, TeamLease Services.
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