By Milton Rajaratne –
Many including Minister of Higher Education and his officials such as the Secretary and the UGC Chairman, many Vice-Chancellors, lecturers and politicians are puzzled with an issue coined as ‘graduate unemployability’. Research data published in the UGC bulletins show that the ‘graduate unemployability’ prevails across all the disciplines taught at the universities that fall within the UGC purview.
The Ministry of Higher Education has shouldered the burden of joblessness of graduates for which otherwise the Ministries of Economic Development and Finance & Planning should have been blamed. Instead of producing learned graduates and elevating the quality and meaning of higher education, the Ministry of Higher Education is devoted to resolving the ‘graduate unemployability’ problem. Thus at every workshop, seminar and conference organized by the Ministry, the higher ranking officials spend much of their time to work out remedies for the ‘graduate unemployability’. The frequently prescribed medicine for the ‘unemployability ailment’ is production of graduates in new vocational fields such as management, beauty culture, tourism etc.
It is obvious that the Arts and Social Science graduates have faced serious unemployment problem at present while almost all graduates in Sri Lanka attempt to secure government employment. Privileges and the job security of the government employment over the private sector employment are the general motivators. Moreover, as business sector believes graduates as an unemployable species the government thus bears the responsibility to provide them with government jobs. The recruitment of 40,000 graduates in 2004 for the monthly salary of Rs. 6000 and recent recruitment of another 40,000 graduates for the monthly salary of Rs. 10,000 and sending them to the Grama Niladhari for training reflect the government attitude towards the graduates.
University of Ceylon since its inception in 1942 has produced hundreds of thousands of graduates in various disciplines and they all have been employed in Sri Lanka and many other countries. However, since the recent past, graduate unemployment has been persisting and now it is termed as ‘graduate unemployability’ problem. Further, it has become customary to blame the universities for producing ‘unemployable graduates’ and the ‘unemployability’ problem has been surrendered to the universities. And finally the university lecturers are assigned the responsibility to innovate solutions to make graduates employable.
But are graduates really unemployable? Aren’t buffaloes employed in the paddy fields, bulls to pull carts, elephants to pull logs, dogs and horses to serve the Police? For clearing of the construction site of the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) elephants were heavily employed and they had been named as ‘Ceylonese Bulldozers’. This tells not only men, women, children, disabled persons, elderly, uneducated and any other sort of persons but even animals can be employed. Then why cannot be the graduates employed? Graduates comprise the best cohort of the population as far as employability is concerned. Graduates are more employable than any other person as they are young, energetic, educated, trained and disciplined. Thus those who believe that graduates are unemployable must reassess their attitude.
Some of our graduates leave for their popular destinations such as USA, Canada, Australia and Europe. Some still enter the Gulf region. They all find suitable jobs in those countries. If our graduates are ‘unemployable’ how are they employed in those countries? Also, our graduates join graduate schools in those and other foreign countries and perform brilliantly and end up with prestigious employers there. This reflects the truth that the Sri Lankan graduates are unemployable while they are in their motherland but employable elsewhere in the world.
Once, the graduate ‘unemplyability’ problem was constructed on their lack of English proficiency. Resources were deployed to improve English knowledge. As a result English medium teaching was introduced. Yet another problem emerged. That was the ‘graduate computer illiteracy’. Computer laboratories were set up and computer courses were made compulsory in the curricular in response. But further, issue irrupted. That was the ‘soft skills’ problem of the graduates. Courses such as ‘Disciplines’ ‘ethnic cohesion’ and ‘food etiquettes’ were taught and the undergraduates were brought to military camps and given an ‘orientation’ in those lines at an enormous cost. However, according to the authorities, the graduates are still ‘unemployable’.
It is obvious that our graduates are now several times better in their skills compared to the graduates of the past decades. The 21st century graduates, in general, are much better in their English, computer and soft skills compared to the graduates of the late 20th century. So what else do the graduates need to accomplish? Engineering, Medical, Veterinary and Dental graduates also have fallen to the ‘unemployable’ category despite the fact that unlike the Arts and Social Sciences graduates, they are particularly trained to perform specific profession and thus possess the right skills demanded by those professions.
In the Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Viet Nam their graduates are still employable without any English skill. In the Middle East, any sort of person without any skill that the Higher Education Ministry of Sri Lanka demands can be employed. And by miracle if English knowledge of our graduates were improved to the level of Shakespeare could they be employed over night? And if our graduates were of the caliber of Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive in computers, could they be employed instantly? The answer, for sure, is ‘No’.
It is obvious that our graduates are not ‘unemployable’ but the country cannot employ them. The problem is not with the graduates but with the production system of the country, i.e. the economy is incapable of absorbing educated youth. Though this is not an economic forum to discuss this matter in details, the real problem is that our imports are too strong and exports are too weak. As a result the domestic production and production structure have become weak. Thus to mend the trade balance, it has now become customary to exports labor and earn foreign currency thereby to pay the imports bill. When the foreign remittances are insufficient, foreign loans are obtained to finance the deficit. In order to pay foreign loans, instead of goods and services labor is exported to earn foreign currency. In this manner, the economy is now caught in the imports of goods and exports of labor trap. The low production level of the economy has trimmed down labor absorption and caused unemployment in consequence. This has compelled millions of citizens to migrate seeking jobs and better lives in foreign countries. While politicians propagate patriotism, the educated youth of Sri Lanka long for migration.
Thus the truth about ‘graduate unemployability’ is that the economy is too weak to provide employment to graduates despite the fact that the graduate (internal) to population ratio at present is extremely low and stands at one graduate to one thousand people roughly while the graduates being the most dynamic cohort in the population. The Higher Education authorities and officials in spite of accepting this truth advocate ‘change of mindset’ and ‘paradigm shift’ in university education. These jargons then promote vocational education in universities. Vocational education is a subject different from university education. The paradigm shift should occur to change the mindset to realize this myth that graduates are employable but the country cannot employ them.
In any country graduates are produced in many disciplines. In early decades, the state university produced a limited number of graduates to employ in the public services. But the number of graduates increased as the population increased and facilities for education expanded. Further, as education became a right and affordable to many or at least it became a way out of poverty, more youth opted for university education. This has produced a large number of graduates that the economy cannot employ at home. In East Asian miracle economies, entrepreneurial class emerged and without English, IT or soft skill, they expanded the domestic production and improved production structure which led to create ample employment opportunities. So not only the graduates but those non-graduate youth also became employable. In Japan the job-applicant ratio once stood lopsided as the job opportunities outnumbered the job applicants.
When the economy picks up, the graduates would not be a problem but a blessing. On the other hand, when the economy performs wrong graduate employment becomes an issue. Higher education cannot correct the economy though some of the disciplines that are taught at the university have a remote role in it. It is the government and the business sector that must get the economy right and then the graduates of all sorts would become employable. Getting the economy right does not refer to the mere annual growth rate of Gross Domestic Product or the Rate of Unemployment but the right production structure. So we conclude that the graduate ‘unemployability’ is myth and an indicator of the poor economic performance. The move of the Ministry of Higher Education to produce tailor-made graduates to improve graduate employability is equally a misconception. While universities should not assume the duty of vocational training schools, prospective private or state sector employers should adopt proper training mechanism upon graduate recruitment to place them on right jobs. After training in the expected lines, they would become employable. A paradigm shift should occur among the employers to change their mindsets to comprehend that the graduates are not ready-made goods and thus they need proper training upon recruitment. This incurs cost. SONY Chairman, Akio Morita, addressing graduate apprentice used to mention that “as the company bears cost of training by way of payment of salary during the training period the new recruits must train themselves properly otherwise it is waste of money.” Work environment, work culture and work dynamics are rapidly changing but universities always remain relatively conservative. Thus the employers must assume the polishing job of the cut and finished gems sent to them by the university.
*Writer is Professor of Management at University of Peradeniya