Graduates: Quality, quantity, employability

Like the developed countries, we too are in a critical phase regarding higher education, and it threatens to become even more so if we do not take the trouble to think the issue through thoroughly and be proactive in counselling aspirants so that they do not end up frustrated.

No one will gainsay that education is the key to a country’s prosperity and the social development and mobility of its people. And, further, all studies and surveys have shown that university level graduates have on an average higher levels of income. Correlations have also been established between higher levels of education and the health and general socio-economic status of the social classes.

Getting the highest education possible is therefore the legitimate wish of practically every thinking citizen in free societies which value such thinking and which organize themselves to meet the aspirations of their people. This has usually meant democratic countries, democracy being not necessarily the best but the least bad of political systems according to Winston Churchill, the British statesman who led his country to victory in World War II.

We are lucky in Mauritius to have adopted democracy, which has allowed us to make much progress compared to many of our neighbours in sub-Saharan Africa which, though being vastly rich in mineral and other resources, are lagging behind because of tyrannical systems in place, civil and sectarian/ethnic conflicts or continuous warring. Further, free education has given a boost to our development.

However, of late we have been producing graduates in large numbers in all fields, but many of them are not employable with the academic qualifications they have acquired. Hence schemes for their placement in the workplace, including industry, earlier on, from secondary level, with a view to help them towards career orientation.

All free countries are facing similar problems as regards their graduate population, and as that concerns young people, the level of unemployment among them, especially those below 25 years, is very high. This is the case in Europe and in America, and the acuteness of the problem varies from country to country.

Countries that were but a few years ago billed as being on the cusp of great leaps forward and cited as models, such as Spain and Ireland, are now facing crises of unemployment in general, and youth unemployment in particular. They either do not get employment in their fields of study, or they have to settle for much lower salary levels, if they are lucky enough to be recruited.

A recent article in the Economist revealed that in advanced countries, there are six PhD’s for every post advertised. Where this is possible, graduates are moving from Europe to the southern hemisphere: Portuguese to Angola and Mozambique, Spaniards to South America.

Nearly three decades ago many Mauritians with degrees went to Zimbabwe to work as teachers, and did very well. A few are known to have stayed on. Earlier, in the late 1950s/1960s, thousands of Mauritians went with basic School Certificate qualification to the UK to train and work as nurses. It is one of the great success stories of Mauritian mass migration. After all, we are migrants to this country, so what does it matter that we look and leap further afield?

As we make it official policy to encourage the proliferation of universities locally, it is the State’s responsibility to ensure the quality of graduate education that they will provide, through rigorous, institutionalised regulatory mechanisms, which must also establish well in advance whether or not the qualifications offered are recognized either for employment or for further studies, both locally and abroad. Otherwise students will be taken for a costly ride, as has already happened.

By the same token, it is also the State’s responsibility to issue advisories about the situation in different sectors so that prospective graduates are forewarned, as many expect to get a job in government upon completion of their studies. This is particularly the case with medical graduates, trained both locally and abroad, because according to official figures the public sector handles nearly 80% of the volume of medical work in the country. We are given to understand that currently there are hundreds who have been registered with the Medical Council, both specialists and non-specialists, and are awaiting to do either their pre-registration training or, having completed it, are yet to be employed or to find space in private practice.

There are apparently many more to come, and they are going to pose a big problem if there are no openings locally. Further, the low clearance rates among graduates who took the test prior to being given full registration by the Medical Council, which has been conducted for the first time (organized by the Medical Council), is a matter of major public concern. Only two have passed out of 13 who sat for this exam which was a Multiple Choice questionnaire set with Indian expertise, and is all the more reason for the State to act proactively so as to ensure quality both before students embark on their studies, and after they have returned through schemes of continuing education and training. It is known that the doctors are coming from many different universities in China and the East- European states. So there are issues of comprehension of the English language for example, and also as regards the content of the paper, it may well be asked whether there is sufficient Mauritian input? After all, the University of Mauritius has been running a medical sciences course for many years now, and all local expertise must also be tapped in future.

Like the developed countries, we too are in a critical phase regarding higher education, and it threatens to become even more so if we do not take the trouble to think the issue through thoroughly and be proactive in counselling aspirants so that they do not end up frustrated. The message is that to be a university graduate is no doubt a laudable aim, but let that be for one’s self-development as well as for career, which may not necessarily be linked to one’s first degree. The latter must be considered as empowering one with thinking and analytical skills, and one must then be open about career options – locally or elsewhere.

Such Plan B is now a must, because in spite of the expansion in the varieties of sectors such as IT, HR, finance, management, training, the scope of employment in one’s primary field of study has narrowed. One must acquire additional, cross-cutting competencies, using the first degree as a springboard. This is the new reality and requirement which youth preparing to join the workplace must now contend with. And remember that simple knowledge is not enough: to that must be added skills and attitude. Whether one chooses to be a hands-on vocational earner or a more academically oriented one, professionalism is the sine qua non for employability, retention and success. Professionalism relates to standards and ethics.

If K is knowledge, S is skills, A is attitude, then K+S = Ability; Ability + A= Performance; Performance+ Professionalism = Employability/retention/success.

 


* Published in print edition on 8 November 2013

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