Call For Education Reforms By Faran Mahmood

Once upon a time, policymakers prepared blueprints of a tertiary education system to produce graduates who would then just fit into the continuously expanding industrial estate. Now with an economic slowdown, the supply of our graduates has far outstripped the demand for these industrial workers. So how has our education system responded to this market discrepancy?
Push more and more students into pursuing a doctorate!
Earlier, the two-year associate degrees were declared substandard. Today, everyone must grab a four-year bachelor’s degree and two-year masters (that may touch even 3.5 years). Then the unemployed ones are told to go for a PhD as it is regarded as a universal passport to a dynamic academic career.
The worst part of this dilemma is that the Higher Education Commission and government officials have no clue where our education system is headed. Our policymakers think all is well. The higher education establishment doesn’t seem to have a plan. The HEC Vision 2025 doesn’t make up the difference with assumed future demand for graduates and fantastical supply-side growth figures. The current ‘do-nothing’ plan just intends to increase the lead time between the enrolment of students into college and their entry into the job market after graduation. This crisis of a spiralling supply problem is as real as it gets. In 2017, for example, more than 11,000 electrical engineers entered the job market and just a handful of new jobs were created. It is no rocket science that our higher education system is broken.
Most of these universities — aka ‘PhD factories’ — have a blatant disregard for actual societal problems at large and what matters to them is a continuous influx of fees and grants, while degrees keep on dropping off the end of a conveyer belt. The basic subject knowledge of PhD candidates is only superficially tested and candidates are judged primarily on the number of their publications — with little chance of their research materialising into any useful economic or social development outcomes. So what happens to our graduates with all these fancy degrees at the end of the day? Nobody cares.
It can be argued that the way we structure our education system directly affects how the job market behaves. The most successful local degree programme has been that of an MBA from LUMS or IBA because it is like being a member of an elite club. When a member of this club ends up being an HR manager in any corporation, one tends to favour graduates from the same elite school and hence, a graduate from a run-of-the-mill university is at a disadvantage. However when it comes to PhD, success stories are few and far between.
The old school model of higher education needs to go. There is a call for a big vision and to think strategically about interests of frontline HR practitioners, policymakers and academia to better understand the institutional incentives and constraints faced by them. Just collecting feedback is not enough and we need to ‘close the loop’ by turning voices into conversations; and letting beneficiaries and not just experts to lead the process.
Curriculum designers need to actively scan the job market for a myriad of core competencies and skills in demand, and then incorporate that into curricula. Partners from the industry and the corporate sector need to be involved not only in shaping the curriculum but also in the evaluation of learning and teaching practices. HR managers and industry leaders should co-create, validate and approve tailor-made courses — increasing the capacity of the education system to innovate. Such innovative partnerships require relevant facilitating policies with a need to share best practices and development of central repository for knowledge transfer and exchange. Current processes in place for industry engagement are piecemeal and incomplete. The policy blueprint is still missing.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2018.

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