Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On Graduate Employability

There has been an intense discussion in many higher education forums and social media revolving around the issue of re-examining and re-thinking our future direction, as far as undergraduate programme and employability are concerned. Graduate employability is always taken as a good measure to show the ‘quality’ of education and reflect the reputation of the educational institution. Is it true?

Yes, it is important and relevant but to me, that's not THE ONLY reason for the existent of a university. In addition to the issue of graduate employability, there are deeper questions that do not often get addressed in public dialogue about higher education: What is the purpose of higher education today and for the future? What do we want to achieve for all the young talent we are nurturing? Or are we (educators) really nurturing them in a true sense of providing wholesome and holistic education? These questions challenge us to re-imagine the role of university and educators (lecturers) beyond that of graduate employability.

I don't know whether you would agree with me that our curriculum has been designed to FOCUS ON CONTENT. Yes, content (subject matter) is important and the curriculum should have adequate breadth and depth. This is to ensure we produce competent graduates in their respective discipline — as Food Technologist, Pharmacist, medical doctors, engineer, teacher, economist, etc. When they go out to the job market, they are probably ready to serve the relevant industry IF, and ONLY IF the prospective employers are looking ONLY for competent ‘worker’ that know their stuff — nothing else.

Unfortunately, the scenario in the marketplace has dramatically changed and is still changing rapidly. Employers are looking for multi-talented, multi-skills knowledge worker. Employers are looking for a person equipped with the so-called 21st-century skills (innovative, creative, good social and communicative skills, flexible, adaptable, independent, cross-cultural, ethical competence, forward-looking, versatile, fast learners), plus, of course, knowledge and competency on the subject matter. These are the skills that need to be EMBEDDED in the curriculum design and INCULCATED in the students through proper delivery at the course level. In other words, when we talk about graduate employability, we talk about the employability of our graduates for jobs that do not even exist tomorrow!

Now, ask ourselves and think whether our curriculum and delivery have been designed to produce knowledge human capital (I don't want to use the term 'knowledge worker'). According to Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. In this regard, the curriculum should be designed in such a manner that our graduates are equipped with various learning and thinking skills to make them more VERSATILE, FLEXIBLE, RESOURCEFUL, and ADAPTABLE. When our graduates possess these skills then they will be able to learn new skills and adapt readily to the new environment. I cannot emphasize more the need that the innovative teaching approaches be integrated with appropriate student-centered learning environment so that the skill of "learn how to learn" can be imparted more effectively. Cognitive research on learning suggests that "how people learn is more important than what people learn in the achievement of successful learning".

I believe that THE KEY is the curriculum and the catalyst is the lecturers (educators). We should change our mindset that our role is not only to TEACH but to nurture our students to become lifelong learners.

The next question is, how do we incorporate lifelong learning model into our existing educational framework? It is obvious that our educational systems can no longer emphasise task-specific skills but must focus instead on developing learners' decision-making and problem-solving skills and teaching them how to learn on their own and with others. Achieving these goals requires a fundamental change in the way learning takes place and the relationship between learner and teacher. Our graduates need to be equipped with the essential skills and competencies they need to succeed in knowledge economy era. These skills include mastery of technical, interpersonal, and methodological skills. Technical skills include literacy, foreign language, math, science, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Interpersonal skills include teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Methodological skills include the ability to learn on one's own, to pursue lifelong learning, and to cope with risk and change.

The bottom line is, we need to develop a deep understanding of a new learning culture and, therefore, create a new shift in paradigm.

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