Higher the education, lower the possibility of getting jobs has become a painful reality in many developing countries. In contrast to growing graduate unemployment, high-school drop-outs with three-month vocational training are often on high demand. Wage differential between high-school dropouts and fresh university graduates has reached almost zero. Such negative correlation between the level of education and employability has created a new development challenge. This exposes the failure of colleges and universities to adequately prepare youths for the 21st century workplace. As George D. Kuh, Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at Indiana University, has recently observed in an article in Harvard Business Review (HBR), "One of the dominant narratives is that we need to produce more workers now who can do whatever is needed now, using short-term post-secondary certification programmes".
The focus is typically on "vocational" skills, contrasted with what too often are characterised as relatively useless liberal education outcomes. As opposed to liberal arts-based education, should we focus on vocational skill-based education? Does it mean that higher education has been losing relevance to drive economic growth in developing countries? Is it a time to rethink about the future of education, and its role in job creation and economic growth? Should we do it in isolation of development strategy now being pursed?
Across the world, skill gap is a growing concern. Particularly, it has become a serious development strategy issue in developing countries. Most of the developing countries are blessed with large youth population. Based on the thesis that investment in education would drive economic growth, as it happened in advanced countries, development institutions, multi-lateral lenders, think tanks, and pundits alike advised developing countries to expand higher education, particularly by adopting curricula of reputed global universities. As a result, these countries started experiencing exponential growth in tertiary education. For example, student population in Bangladesh's tertiary education has already reached 3 (three) million. Growing graduate unemployment is now raising skill gap issue, as the industry is often running short of skilled people.
To accelerate the progress, countries like Bangladesh opened higher education to private initiatives. Based on the job market signal, private universities often offer demand-driven programmes, like Bachelor in Business Administration or Computer Science. Unfortunately, within a short span of time, demand of for graduates of those programmes has also saturated.
Employers recruit graduates to perform certain tasks as per the need of producing outputs by mixing inputs. Nature of skills requirements depends on the type of tasks being executed for outputs produced, inputs used, and procedures followed. The skill requirement in an industry as well as in a country as a whole depends on the task content of production and the mapping of these tasks to skills. In most developing countries, productive activities are at the low end of the global value chain. For example, cellular communication industry in developing countries largely imports technology from advanced countries. Technical tasks in developing countries pertaining to delivery of cellular commutation service is about installing imported equipment, configuring them, and repairing them. But the tasks of conceiving next generation devices and systems, undertaking research in advancing technology, and innovating product features are being performed in advanced countries. On the other hand, skill requirement of performing tasks for using imported technologies has a very short life span. As competition is rapidly transforming technology, shelf life of skills of using technologies is getting increasingly shorter. Such reality is making higher education less relevant on one hand, and on the other, shelf-life of skill is also getting shorter. To address these issues, there could be a number of suggestions.
One of the most important ones is to increase the supply of appropriate tasks for making better use of higher education. Whether we produce goods or services, the corresponding value chains have a number of steps. It begins with idea generation leading to scientific discovery, technology, advancement and innovation. The next level is about the production, distribution, and consumption of those innovations. Tasks requirement in each of these major phases vastly vary. For example, innovation largely depends on the knowledge and skill of pursuing unknown in the midst of high-level uncertainties, consumers' preferences, response of competition, policy and regulatory issues, and state of infrastructure, among others. On the other hand, production and consumption of innovation, whether smartphones or automobiles, largely relies on executing given procedures with the support of provided tools. Skill requirement for executing tasks for innovation is far different than needed for production and consumption. It happens to be that higher education, particularly in science and engineering, is primarily for the purpose of producing graduates for contributing to idea generation, advancing science and technology, and innovating goods as well as services. As developing countries are following the strategy of importing innovations, and limiting local activities to production and consumption, irrelevance of higher education is increasingly surfacing. For example, Bangladesh is increasingly producing electrical and computer engineering graduates. But Bangladesh's industrial strategy has been based on import of technologies, assembling components to prepuce finished products, and maintain them. As a result, despite the deployment of multiple cellular networks all across the country, there has not been the demand for performing tasks for developing next generation cellular technologies.
Similarly, although Bangladesh is making rapid progress in assembling mobile phone handsets, there has been no progress on demand creation for tasks to generate ideas of redesigning those devices. On the other hand, despite the increasing investment in constructing large bridges, and deploying metro rail systems, there has been basically no visible progress in increasing tasks for redesigning them.
In order to drive economic growth, developing countries must address the issue of graduate unemployment as well as underemployment. So far, the job market has been demanding vocational skills, ready to be used in performing replication, operation, and maintenance tasks. Focusing higher education on supplying those skills does not open the path of scaling up the income growth trend. On the other hand, without the change, growing graduate unemployment makes the situation worse. To overcome this dichotomy, the focus should be on changing the development strategy from importing ideas, design, technology, and innovation to locally produce them for making higher education relevant. In the absence of this, developing countries will lose development opportunity, and run the risk of getting caught into growth trap.
M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy.