‘A Graduate in Every Family’: Why not?
We’ll need professionals in all sectors of the economy and society — at all levels — whether it’s for entertainment purposes at a social meet which would require the services of a disc jockey, a caterer for a wedding, a cook for a feast, an interior decorator, a hair dresser for a special occasion or a caregiver for the elderly
A decade ago, a relative of mine mentioned to me the case of classmate at a British university, who was then 69 years old, and reading for a degree in law. A very rich man, he owned several mines, but he never had the opportunity to fulfil his cherished ambition of studying for a university degree. Ultimately he did do so. Recently we have had a 95-year-old student attending university.
Going to university is highly valued in all societies for a number of reasons. In our country there is hardly a parent who has been to university and would not wish her children to do the same. It is therefore worrying to find that in 2016 the number of students admitted to our public universities has declined when one would have expected it to go up. Unfortunately those who are most likely to skip university come predominantly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and this is a loss both to the country and to the students. One major consequence for society is a widening of the gap between social classes.
All our public universities have registered a decline in their student enrolment and even the number of students going overseas has fallen too. Perhaps the major reason has been the failure of the economy to absorb the freshly trained graduates while others are likely to blame the mismatches between the higher education degrees and the knowledge and skills required by the economy. There is no doubt that graduate unemployment has had an impact on attitudes toward higher studies. It has discouraged many young people from joining university; parents too have been apprehensive about spending a fortune on higher education whilst their children are still waiting to take up their first job.
Impact of unemployment on university enrolment
The impact of graduate unemployment on university enrolment cannot be denied. This has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, higher education providers have been compelled to rethink their strategies, review their programmes and come up with new modules to meet the skills requirement of the economy. Academics can benefit from smaller classes and provide more efficient teaching while having sufficient time to conduct both pure and applied research. All this can improve the quality of education provided other changes follow suit. Academic staff can have more time to focus on research provided all examinations activities in public universities are completed by the end of June, and the months of July to September are devoted specifically to research, presenting papers, doing field work or attending conferences. This is the period the world over where academics are freed from teaching and mundane activities to be able to focus on their research work.
On the negative side, an important segment of our population will be deprived of high skills and competencies, which are badly needed by our economy. With a declining population, we have to maximize our human resources at all levels and the tertiary education sector fulfils a crucial role for the economy in this respect. It is well known that those countries which engage a critical mass of highly skilled workers and professionals in all sectors of the economy and society register higher economic growth and remain competitive. If the decline in enrolment persists for a few years, which we hope not, it will amount to a missed opportunity for these students and for the economy as well. Once the opportunities are lost, it will become difficult and even impossible to catch up with other countries, let alone with a country like Singapore where they are already thinking of implementing a carless city by 2065 or even putting in place measures to ensure that even a 5% rise in sea level in the future will not affect the major part of Singapore.
Middle class families with a university-going culture can and will support financially their children to go for higher education whatever be the level of unemployment. It is immaterial for such parents whether their wards end up working abroad for a number of years or that they settle down permanently over there. On the other hand, those likely to grab a first job after college rather than go on to pursue higher education will most likely do so mainly for financial reasons. Such decisions, however rational or understandable, will in the long term prevent them from competing in a highly competitive labour market in Mauritius as well as abroad for many jobs are going to disappear in the wake of ongoing technological changes. It is reckoned that within ten years, if history is any guide, the world will have undergone a technological revolution. An economy based on new technology will require very highly skilled workers at one end and low skilled and menial jobs at the other end, and in between a whole swathe of bureaucratic, low-skilled and clerical jobs will disappear. Even the menial and ‘dirty jobs’ will be done and assisted by robots.
Need for proper guidance
It could be argued that if many of young friends have failed to go for higher education, that could be due to the fact that they might not have benefited from proper guidance post secondary school. It’s the same lack of proper guidance which explains in a large measure the inability even of those who have joined higher institutions of learning to sustain their employability status. The latter have not been tutored about the dynamics of the ever-changing labour market wherein skills and competencies – important as they are for the moment – have a shorter shelf life. Technologies change as well as organisations. The economy requires a permanent updating of skills and competencies. In some sectors such as ICT, the organisation requires new knowledge and skills every two or three months to remain competitive.
My young neighbour, who has completed NTC 3 in Refrigeration and Air-conditioning, and got himself a job dealing with electrical goods feels he just can only just ‘manage’ thanks to experience acquired on the job. But today the company’s client has need for a specialist or a professional in every field. Nobody encouraged my young neighbour to proceed to NTC 4 or 5 nor do our institutions generally provide for in-service or retraining in these areas on a permanent basis and, even if they do, there are no facilities for those working in small SMEs to benefit from them.
Addressing training/retraining needs
The various gaps in the training of our workforce affect the productivity of the labour force and the competitive edge of the country. They have also important implications for our higher institutions, which are faced with the challenge of training and retraining high skilled workers and professionals. In many countries retraining has become a permanent feature of universities, institutions of higher learning and post secondary institutions. While one can leave private institutions to meet the needs of their students as best as they can, public institutions with strengths in stem subjects at any level should be given much more resources to attract and nudge all those students with science subjects at A-level or an interest in technology and applied sciences to pursue further learning in these areas. This does not mean that we should neglect other disciplines that are equally important for creating a liveable environment. We need an ever-increasing number of new science and technology programmes to get a maximum of students in our institutions after college.
A few years ago the catch phrase ‘A Graduate in Every Family’ was intended to foster a university-going culture among the population, and it did bring more students from a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds to our institutions. But it was also grossly misunderstood and perhaps poorly communicated for it might have conveyed the wrong impression that all students should take up university studies with a view to earning degrees in academic subjects.
In fact what it really meant was that we’ll need professionals in all sectors of the economy and society — at all levels — whether it’s for entertainment purposes at a social meet which would require the services of a disc jockey, a caterer for a wedding, a cook for a feast, an interior decorator, a hair dresser for a special occasion or a caregiver for the elderly. All these service providers will need to be professionally trained – and retrained — whether at the level of a university, a polytechnic or any post secondary institution. It is only with the contribution of such professionals in all walks of life that we’ll be able to create a sustainable and better adapted economy and society.