Post-secondary and continuing education is continuing to be rationalized in ways that are transforming the very foundation of the enterprise. Funding is a major driver of change in this field: how much is available, when it flows, where it comes from, what is funded, and who gets the funding are questions on the minds of those running the academy.
At the centre of the focus of this funding issue is the job market. Training qualified professionals for the job market in various forms has been one of the roles a university has played for more than a century. Now that role has become central.
Let’s consider what that means and what it could do in shaping the various possible futures of the university. This second in a series looking at the post-secondary and continuing education focuses on the metrics of jobs.
“What are all these people going do?”
The employability of graduates is now the holy grail of education industry statistics. Earlier this year I was sitting on the stage at an academic convocation with a senior colleague staring out at a sea of soon-to-be-graduates when he leaned over and asked the question quoted above. Staring at a sea of masters and doctoral graduates numbered in the hundreds and knowing that this ceremony was held twice per year, the question stuck and remains without an answer.
Maybe there were enough jobs for that cohort, but this process gets repeated twice each year at universities around the world and each year that I’ve been a professor those numbers (of graduates) seem to go up. Some of our programs in the health sciences are admitting three times the number of students than they were just ten years ago. There is much demand for education (as judged by departmental applications), but are there jobs demanding this kind of education in its current form?
Yes, the Baby Boom is moving into an age of retirement and increasing needs for health services, but do we need to graduate 80+ Physical or Occupational Therapists to meet this need this year? Do we need a few dozen more epidemiologists or health promotion specialists to add to the pool? How about psychologists or social workers: how many of those do we need? The answer from my colleagues in these fields is: We don’t know.
Chasing the Wind
Jobs are a red herring. It’s one thing to have a job, but is it the job that you trained for? (And is having that job even a reasonable goal?) Being employed is not the same as building a career. What if you were trained perfectly for a job that no longer existed? Imagine a Blacksmith in the 20th century or a Bloodletter. These questions are not asked, nor is much asked about quality of education relative to the pressures of recruitment, cost-cutting and educational rationalization. Most of us don’t know what quality education is in real terms because we are measuring it (if we are measuring anything at all besides jobs) by standards set for the jobs of the past, not the future (or even the present?).
“Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” – Wayne Gretzky
Jobs are living things and very few in 2013 will resemble what they did even 10 years ago. The citizens of the developing world are entering this rapidly changing job market ready for change (See also McKinsey Global Institute report on future of work in advanced economies) because they don’t have the old ways to rely on. They are primed for change and if professional education is to meet the needs of a changing world, it needs to change too. It means getting serious about learning.
If education is rationalizing itself to focus more on jobs, then it also needs to get serious about clarifying what jobs mean, defining what ‘success’ looks like for a graduate, and whether those jobs are designed for where the proverbial puck is now or for where it is going.
Disruptive Learning / Disturbed Education
“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus
I’ve pointed out that learners have an uneasy relationship with learning principally because it means disrupting things. This is a topic I’ll be covering in greater depth in a future post, but if one considers how our social, economic, and environmental systems are changing it is not unreasonable to call this the age of disruption .
Change in complex systems is often logarithmic, not linear. It may be massively punctuated like a Lévy Flight or it could be closer to a random walk. In environments with a change coefficient that is large the level of attention must be more fine-grained than 5-year reviews. It requires developmental evaluation methods and learning organizations, not just conventional approaches to generating and assessing feedback. It requires mindful attention and contemplative inquiry to guide a regular reflective practice if one is to pay attention to the subtleties in change that could have enormous impact.
For example, if journalists and news media waited every five years to assess the state of their profession, they would have missed out on Twitter and come late to blogging, two of their (now) powerful sources of competition and tools of the trade. Some have waited, which is why they are no longer around. Metrics for journalism education today might consider the amount of exposure and proficiency in social media use, digital photography, use of handheld tools for communication, and real-time reporting skills. Metrics of the past might focus on newspapers and radio broadcasting. Which mindset, skillset and toolset would you rather be trained in today?
Questions for educators, learners (and evaluators):
Whether health sciences, journalism, human services or any field, what might some questions be that can help determine the role of job training in professional education? Here are five starters:
1. What is the state of your profession right now and are you training people for existing in this state? Are you preparing people for the next evolution?
2. Where is your field of practice going? What are the possible futures for your profession in the next 5, 10, and 20 years? Will it still exist? Are you a blacksmith looking for more horses in the automobile age or Steve Jobs waiting to attract people to a new graphical user interface?
3. Is your mindset, skillset or toolset in need of re-consideration? Does it still do the job you’ve hired it to do?
4. What do people need that your skills can help with? What unfilled needs and expectations are there in the world that your mindset, skillset and toolset could solve?
5. What would happen if your field of practice disappeared? How else could you apply what you know to making the contribution you wish to make and earn a living? What other skills, tools and ways of thinking would you need to adapt?
Design thinking can greatly help shape the way that one conceives of a problem, works through possible options, and develops prototypes to address the needs of the present and the future. Foresight methods help lay additional context for design and systems thinking by providing ways to anticipate possible futures for any given field. Lastly, knowing what the state of things are now and how they got to where they are now can help determine the path dependencies that education may have fallen into.
We can’t change what we don’t see and better foresight, hindsight and present sight is critical to better ensuring that education outcomes are not imagined, but based on something that can actually improve learning.