Consider higher education for a moment. Why is it needed? What do students get from it?
We learn the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects at school. This is the foundation. We get a sense of subjects that interest us more than others. College then is meant for specialisation. That’s one purpose of higher education – to teach specialised knowledge or skills to learners. So, college is where you go to become a computer engineer and then troll people on Twitter; or, where you earn an MBA, join an investment bank and design toxic derivative products that destroy economies; or, where you learn economics and then lecture everyone. As you notice, higher education can train you to become a specialist of some sort who then is useful to the society.
That’s not enough though. Higher education is also meant to ‘credential’ you. That’s the second purpose. The degree or the certificate is an important outcome of higher education. It is an authenticated signal to the world of your usefulness. It helps the society repose its faith in you for that specialised skill. That explains why specialised professionals like doctors or lawyers have their certificates framed on the walls of their offices. It isn’t vanity alone. It is their credential up there.
Lastly, higher education also serves the human need to know. Alexander Pope wrote – “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again”. Some of us want to drink deep from the Pierian spring because it opens up our minds; we enquire, we challenge and we create new knowledge. Simply put, the college nurtures and pushes the frontiers of knowledge and, so, enables the progress of civilization. This is the third and the ultimate purpose.
In most countries, ‘credentialing’ is tightly controlled. The award of the degree or the certificate is closely guarded by a small set of monopolies in the form of universities or colleges under a strict set of internal guidelines (like in USA) or is a direct monopoly of the state through a regulator (like in India). Such is the human fetish for credentials that the primary purpose of all higher education over time has become the degree or the certificate. This is especially true in India where most college education hardly serves the other 2 purposes, namely, learning of specialised knowledge or skill and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. College equals degree for us.
There’s a long story of how we arrived at this distortion which is not a subject for this column. What interests us here is what this distortion has meant for India. The pursuit of degree alone has meant most college graduates ‘stumble’ upon their specialisation through pure happenstance. Often, there is no intent or interest to pursue a particular stream of specialisation at college or beyond it at work. There’s no considered choice of a career based on knowing thyself. This has meant an army of college graduates every year who have the ‘credentials’ of a specialist in Engineering, History, Commerce or Botany but no real skills in these subjects that could be useful to society.
The employers who are looking to hire view them, largely, as an undifferentiated mass of graduates. They respect the state monopoly over the credentials and the fact that these graduates have earned it from the state. Even more significantly, they have been ‘conditioned’ by the state run enterprises who have, for many year, been using college degrees as the simplest sorting criteria to hire people in the absence of any other easy way of differentiating the applicants. The employers then run an elaborate process of sorting these graduates to find who would be ‘fit’ for their employment. There’s really nothing to sort. They are all the same. Most employers don’t have jobs that need hugely specialised skill sets at entry level in any case. Employers satisfy themselves through their sorting mechanism that they have picked the ‘best-in-class’ resources (or, insert whatever term employers use these days to describe the people they have hired). Once the hiring is done, the employers know they must train these resources from scratch. Almost nothing that the college education has given them makes them readily employable. This cycle goes on every year.
Now, weigh the enormous costs and time spent running this entire machinery which ends up with the graduates being trained from scratch. The years spent at college, the entire academic infrastructure and resources used to teach students who, in most cases, haven’t made a considered choice to pursue that specialisation. The almost futile search, sort and other transaction costs of the employers who try and differentiate within this pool. And, lastly, the costs of the employers to train their employees on almost everything related to their jobs while paying them salaries. This system has created enormous incentives for students to enrol for colleges while having limited awareness of their interests, to have no real desire to pursue real skills or knowledge and for the state to target essentially trivial metrics like enrolment % at colleges instead of employability of students.
A useful alternative model would be to loosen the monopoly of credentialing from the hands of the state. Let the state only monopolize the credentials for those who study for a total of 16 years and beyond (10+2+4 and beyond). The credentials for anything in between can be done by anyone who follows a basic minimum set of standards. Let the open market decide on the quality of these credentials. For instance, a student after Class 12 can go in for a 1 year program on Robotics if that’s an area of interest for her. There should be multiple players who can give her a 1 year degree on Robotics. This level of specialization should be more than enough for her to get a job at an IT company working on robotics. The IT company doesn’t need to train her on robotics on their costs. Nor does the IT company have to run an elaborate process to go across campuses in India to hire generic engineers and then train them. Once she has worked a year or two at the company, she would then decide if she wants to go for the formal 10+2+4 degree to deepen her understanding of computer science and learn even more in the area of robotics. The state can still retain the monopoly over giving this truly specialized credential.
This example can be extended to any other stream. Students all over can choose to make a smaller investment in time and costs after Class 12 and learn a skill or specialised knowledge that helps them understand their real interests and then be easily employed. Once employed, only those who truly want to learn more and go deeper go back to the formal college system to earn a state controlled degree. The state can get this flywheel moving by encouraging entrepreneurs in setting up the intermediate credentialing agencies by supporting them with the academic and infrastructure capacity they have in public universities (at market rates). Also, the state can set the example themselves by taking away the minimum qualification criteria of a graduate for a whole host of government jobs and encouraging state enterprises to hire the credentialed and skilled non-graduate. This will go a long way in changing the market incentive for doing a college degree for the sake of a degree.
The impact of this on freeing college funds and resources to truly focus on research with students who are passionate about the subject would be immense. The short courses after Class 12 that allow students to learn a ‘trade’ or ‘skill’ which helps them know themselves and earns them apprenticeship would reduce the huge skill gap that exists between campus products and what the organisations who are in the market to hire them look for. It would reduce training and hiring costs of organisations significantly and help them with specialized resources who can readily be deployed at work. Most importantly, it would unclog the colleges that are creaking with the load of increased enrollment without having the resources to produce high quality graduates or cutting edge academic work. We would then inch somewhat closer to meeting the three objectives of higher education.