Not skilled to work

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.

The ‘Skills for All’ program under the ‘Kamyab Jawan’ umbrella program (www.kamyabjawan.gov.pk) offers 240 skill training programs at no-cost to selected candidates.

Traditionally, skills-training programs have been used to bridge the gap between high-school education and the job market. However, lately such skill training programs have also seen demand from university graduates. The list of programs includes hi-tech training programs such as cyber-security, networking & cloud computing, and web & graphic design but also more traditional ones like beautician, fashion designing, electrician etc.

The Kamyab Jawan website is refreshing in the sense that it contains a dashboard of key statistics. It reports things like number of skills scholarships, hi-tech, and conventional skill scholarships, apprenticeships, and certificate courses. for both batch-1 and 2 of the programmes. Unfortunately, the reported numbers are almost exclusively focused on inputs – like: money spent, number of students taken in. There is an undefined metric labeled “jobs created”. Does it refer to the number of participants who found jobs immediately on graduation, after six months, after a year? Or does it refer to the jobs that the entrepreneurial minded among them were able to create for others with the loans that another part of the Kamyab Jawan program provides? That remains unclear.

The Kamyab Jawan program just wrapped up enrollment for batch-3 which receiveds of 400,000 applications (from 279,000 unique applicants) upward for 240 training programs. Forty-five programs received less than 10 applications. Interest was strongly skewed towards hi-tech skills. The top five programs by applications were: 1) Digital Marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), 2) Amazon Virtual Assistant, 3) Certificate in IT (Web Graphics & Mobile App Development), 4) Certificate in Cyber ​​Security and 5) Computer Application & Office Professional, which received between 18,000 and 24,000 applications each.

Perhaps most surprising were the educational backgrounds of applicants – 12 PhD and 2,259 MA/MS holders applied for the Search Engine Optimization programme, something ordinarily done by high-school or at most college graduates. Two PhD and 3,069 MA/MS holders applied for the Amazon Virtual Assistant programme, which trains people for personal assistant (PA) services to businesses and individuals online.

To be clear, I am not quoting these numbers to make fun of applicants. To the contrary: anyone holding a degree with a lofty sounding title in their hand but does not let their ego get in the way of doing what it takes to learn a skill that will help them find a job, any job, even one other people would consider themselves overqualified for, has my respect.

Instead, these statistics – particularly the numbers of applicants already holding PhD (74), MA/MS (29,225) and to some extent BS degrees (76,899) – are an indictment symbol of the worth of Pakistani higher education. What is going on at universities that compelled 106,198 BS/MA/MS/PhD degree holders, 28 percent of all applicants, to apply to vocational and technical training programs ordinarily designed for secondary (matric) and higher secondary (intermediate) school graduates? What universities did those 74 PhD holders graduate from and what do their VCs have to say for the programs they offer?

A student enrolled in one of the many automotive technology courses was a mechanical engineering graduate from a four-year degree programme. When I asked him why he felt the need to take a short diploma course designed for high school graduates he replied that he needed the hands-on experience it provided because in all his years at university they were never shown an engine.

Even a quick glance at the applicant data for programs leaves one with so many questions: Why are there PhD holders and almost a thousand MA/MS degree holders that still feel the need to take a course in Microsoft Office? Why are there hundreds of applicants with degrees applying for cooking / chef / pastry making courses? Why are many hundreds of degree-holders applying for courses in electrical appliance repair?

Data compiled of more that 60 percent of applicants gives the number of applicants from each university applying to these programmes. The top-10 include the 1) University of Punjab, 2) various degree colleges across the country, 3) Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU), 4) University of Sindh Jamshoro, 5) University of Karachi, 6) Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan , 7) Islamia University Bahawalpur, 8) University of Peshawar, 9) Government College University Faisalabad and 10) University of Balochistan Quetta. Applicants from these institutions range from many thousands to about 1300.

The first 85 universities in the list have more than 100 applicants each. The entire list is 291 long and includes almost all local universities and institutes. At the tail end there are a lot of university names from the UK, China, and other countries, usually with one applicant each. Noticeably absent from this, albeit partial, dataset are the names of NUST and LUMS. In a sense, this list serves as the job market’s (reverse-)ranking of universities by employability.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to be a part of a fact-finding mission that talked to a large group of about 100 university faculty members from various universities and a similar number of students where we tried to find some answers. Among the many questions we asked them was if they felt ready for the workplace. The overwhelming response was: No.

Further digging revealed that, contrary to what it says on paper, most universities simply skip over all practical/lab components of programmes. Students at one university complained that their Zoology lab owned a total of five microscopes, of which only two were functional. Faculty at another university said that they could not conduct operations because they are chronically out of chemical supplies. Another university does not have a single permanently appointed faculty member and is operating with an all-adjunct (short-term contractually hired) faculty. Yet another university did not have a lab at all and had to do with a makeshift lab running out of a rented space. Contrary to what their program descriptions state, a lot of students graduate without any practical experience. These universities have dropped the ball.

Since there is no cost of attending Skills for All programmes, the government (the taxpayer) is footing the bill for the Kamyab Jawan programme. Depending on the programme, the cost of each applicant to the national exchequer ranges between Rs60,000 and Rs100,000. The cost of the entire program is around the Rs40 billion mark. For reference, the non-development budget of the entire higher education sector for 2021-2022 is Rs66 billion.

The question that underlies all the facts, figures, and numbers of the Skills for All program is this: Why universities have relegated the practical components of their educational programs to mere formalities that only exist on paper? The Kamyab Jawan program amounts to a subsidy to paper over the failures of at least those universities that send large numbers of applicants to Skills for All programmes. The internship program for new graduates paying Rs30,000 per month announced a few days ago is more of the same. That money would be better spent buying missing lab supplies, new computers, paying internet connection bills, and building missing labs. These measures are band-aids, not solutions addressing the underlying rot.

A solution would address these shortcomings in university programs and hold their leaders to account. Some of these same universities are partners in the Kamyab Jawan program and literally have their own degree graduates return for these more practical oriented training programmes. How does that make sense?

And yet, this is what happens when politicians are more interested in earning brownie points by giving handouts than solving systemic problems for the long term. The PMO now wishes to throw more money at the problem by taking in another Rs1 million into this program of (as of yet) unproven efficacy (only anecdotes and cherry-picked success stories), rather than fixing the broken parts of the school and higher education system.

Among the learning outcomes of modern undergraduate programs (even in Pakistan) is a person’s ability to search and acquire new knowledge outside classroom settings and become an independent learner: the ability to learn by oneself. In today’s world, a new graduate is estimated to change careers five times during their working life. There is a legitimate need for vocational skills training programmes, particularly for people with a high-school education or less, but here we have undergraduates, graduate, and doctoral degree-holders (supposedly capable of doing independent research) applying to them.

Around the world even societies with well-established higher-ed sectors are questioning whether degrees are serving their purpose of signaling competence to employers. Increasingly, the answer is a resounding no (The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘The Future of the Degree – How colleges can survive the new credential economy’, 2017). That era is slipping away. The 21 century requires signaling a different set of skills – the ability to learn and release, work collaboratively, critical thinking, research, evaluate information and solve problems, etc. all the things our school and higher-ed systems gloss over.

When there is only one book and one curriculum that teaches one way of doing things, one view, one opinion on everything, there will be no research, no reading of other books, there can be no differing views, no critical analysis, no need to cooperate, and no debates.

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