By R.P. Gunawardane –
Since a large number of students are graduating every year from our 15 state universities and from many other degree awarding institutes operating in Sri Lanka, employability of graduates has become a critical issue. In the year 2015 alone the state university system produced nearly 35,000 graduates (internal degrees-17,000, external degrees-13,000 and Open University degrees-5000 approximately), a large majority of them (67%) are females. During the same year universities granted 7500 postgraduate degrees. Added to this, a fair number of graduates are returning every year to this country after obtaining foreign degrees. Thus, all these graduates are facing a fierce competition to find a suitable employment in a stagnant economy with limited employment opportunities in the state as well as in the private sector. Because of this situation many graduates tend to accept part-time insecure jobs or jobs for which they are over qualified, if they are fortunate enough to find one. In this situation, sound employability skills coupled with experience and exposure to working environments will play a prominent role in finding a suitable employment.
In addition to addressing this issue, it is also vital that the unemployment currently prevailing among our graduates should be given a serious attention and appropriate remedial measures implemented as an urgent priority without allowing the conditions to deteriorate any further. It is necessary that short-term and long-term measures should be taken to tackle both these issues which are interconnected.
Employability of Graduates
Employability in the broadest sense covers the preparation of a person to apply for a suitable position, facing a successful interview and remain in the job with emphasis on professional advancement. Basically, he or she will be empowered with confidence to become a successful person as a life-long learner and a great achiever. He should be able to apply his knowledge, skills and competencies acquired during his training to the relevant employment situation. While in employment they should have willingness to change occupations to follow trends within professions. In general, most employers look for flexible staff who will be able to adapt to dynamic market conditions.
Most local graduates assume that it is the duty of the government to provide employment to graduates, after receiving free education from primary up to university education. This is not the reality, and it does not happen anywhere in the world. However, it is the function of state to facilitate creation of more employment opportunities in the non-state sector, industries and other institutions rather than overstaffing already inefficient and unproductive state institutions.
Undoubtedly, the mismatch between undergraduate training and employment opportunities is widely considered as the prime reason for unemployment among graduates. Traditionally, the universities have been training graduates mainly for public sector employment. This situation has changed over the years with the economic liberalization, rapid expansion of the private sector in almost all the fields including health and education and with increasing effects of globalization. This has resulted in the shrinkage of state-sector employment and increase in employment opportunities in the non-state sector. Thus, there is a great need to re-structure and re-orient our tertiary education system to be consistent with the market driven economy.
Most of our graduates have a sound knowledge of their academic disciplines. Yet, they mostly lack general knowledge, computer literacy, communication and management skills and team work experience etc. required of an ideal university graduate. These skills and experience are required for them to fit into relevant employment situations.
With so many graduates available in the labour market, most employers complain that they have difficulties in finding candidates with the required knowledge, skills and attitudes. It has been reported that most employers prefer foreign graduates over graduates from local universities except in professional disciplines. Foreign graduates have an advantage over local graduates in employment mainly because most of the foreign graduates have acquired the desirable employment skills in their core curriculum and in their extracurricular activities. It is therefore essential that our local graduates also should acquire these skills to be competitive in the current labour market. Graduates in specialized scientific disciplines and in professional fields such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, engineering, architecture etc. also need these skills because they are required in the professional dealings with the public whether in government service or self-employment. In addition, these skills will be extremely useful when they seek foreign employment.
This misfit of graduates in work places is also reported in other countries, but their situation is much more specific. For instance, it has been reported that the industry in UK has complained that the science graduates lack the commercial awareness and business related skills to fit into industrial establishments. Reacting to this, the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK has proposed to the universities to include topics such as intellectual property, project management, finance, market analysis and production into their curriculum.
It is apparent that the Sri Lankan universities do very little to pay attention to develop employability skills of our graduates. Even in universities where Career Guidance Units are operative, the students have not shown much interest in obtaining the services and participating in their activities. This means that students realize the importance of employability skills too late, only when they seek employment after graduation.
Some of the most important skills or attributes employers seek in the work place are analytic and critical thinking, excellent communication skills, team work, computer skills and proficiency of English language. Most of the students do not receive adequate training and experience in these areas during their training in our local universities.
This issue can be addressed in several different ways, for instance by curricular changes, special programmes by the Career Guidance Units of the universities, crash programmes for the recent graduates, promotion of graduate studies and by making some policy changes in the university system.
Career Guidance and Crash Programmes
Our graduates, the most of whom have a rural background, are intelligent enough to pick up employability skills rapidly, provided they are given an opportunity. Unfortunately, our private sector and most entrepreneurs are impatient and not prepared to wait until they acquire the necessary skills. In such a situation, an alternative would be for the universities to take an initiative in this regard. Thus, it is time that the universities take more responsibility for the employability of the graduates produced by them. Although the responsibility for acquiring employability skills rests both with the student and the university, the students should take special interest and more responsibility in this regard. In this context, the universities should implement programmes to increase the awareness of this aspect among the student community and to improve employability skills of undergraduates giving special emphasis to rapid technological advances, globalization effects, changing labour markets and essential changes in attitudes during transition from the university to working place.
Each university should have a highly organized and well equipped Career Guidance Unit, which is expected to provide up to date information, guidance, direction and assistance to undergraduates regarding prospective career opportunities, application process and the preparation for employment. These university units should preferably be headed by a former employer, entrepreneur or a person with an adequate experience in industry. University-Industry interactions, lectures, workshops and fairs by employers, site visits, short internships and shadowing of professionals should be initiated and implemented by the Career Guidance Units.
In their activities, special emphasis must be given to team working skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, English language proficiency, IT experience, interpersonal skills, presentation skills, taking up responsibilities, building up of self-confidence, CV writing and facing interviews. Alumni networks may be used especially for advising students and to arrange for short internships and work placements.
As an immediate measure to cater for recent graduates who have not been exposed to employability skills, crash programmes may be organized and conducted in several centers. These courses may be organized by the University Grants Commission preferably through the network of postgraduate institutes such as Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), Postgraduate Institute of Science (PGIS) and Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture (PGIA), which are more geared to organize and conduct such programmes. These programmes should include IT training, cv preparation, presentations in English, basics of management, problem solving, personality development etc. and should have a short internship with an attachment to an institution/ industry.
In addition, it is also necessary to formulate and implement a scheme where graduates are given entrepreneurship training and directed towards self-employment of their choice with advice and financial assistance in the form of concessionary bank loans. This scheme will be extremely useful even for graduates holding professional degrees, who can conveniently be diverted towards self-employment. This type of initiative would be needed soon since we are now approaching the saturation limit for certain categories of professions in the state sector.
Curricular and Structural Changes
It is necessary to make major structural changes to the current degree programmes. The structural changes should be effected by broad basing the degree programmes and introducing sufficient flexibility. The broad basing should be achieved by introducing a general education component as a core requirement of all degree programmes. For Arts and Humanities degree programmes, it is essential to include at least one course in basic sciences in the core component. The core may vary depending on the degree programme. This is an opportunity to introduce training to provide general knowledge and special skills expected of a university graduate and additional skills needed in highly specialized disciplines and professional courses.
The core component should incorporate training in employability skills, management skills and awareness of national issues, etc. Some of the subject areas that may be included are IT, Management Studies, Legal Studies, Sri Lankan Studies (for Science majors), Basic Sciences (for Humanities/social Science majors), English Language, Mathematics etc. More emphasis should be given to English Language and IT skills in the foundation/core courses since these skills are essential for any type of employment.
In order to build up and inculcate innovative approaches, analytical thinking and self-confidence it is necessary to incorporate independent studies, project work, work experience/internships in industry/commercial/service sectors. There should be provision for a student to have a semester out working on an approved programme in a recognized institution, which should also carry credit towards the degree.
In this exercise, it is necessary to keep in mind the need to produce employable graduates while at the same time maintaining the quality of university education. What is urgently required at the present time is novel and innovative approaches in the formulation of degree programmes to satisfy human resource needs of the nation and to produce employable graduates.
Novel Courses and Multidisciplinary Approach
It is apparent that there is an urgent need for extensive diversification leading to demanding multi-disciplinary degree programmes with inter-faculty cooperation (multi-faculty degrees). It is also possible to develop joint degree programmes with other universities (inter-university degrees) exploiting the strengths of other universities. Novel and innovative approaches are needed in this direction.
To the credit of our university system, a considerable progress has been achieved during the last two decades to diversify the degree programmes catering to wide range of professions. Yet, much more work needs to be done in this direction to satisfy the national needs. In this connection, it is necessary to break the departmental and faculty barriers and commence interdisciplinary degree programmes leading to Bachelor of Laboratory Technology, Bachelor of Medical science in the fields of Nursing, Pharmacy, Radiography, Medical Laboratory Technology, Bachelor of Environment Science and Engineering, Bachelor of Forensic Science, Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering, Bachelor of Materials Science and Engineering, Bachelor of Science and Technology Management, Bachelor of Management and Legal Studies, Bachelor of Finance and Management etc., deviating from stereotype degree programmes. It is necessary to give highest priority to train manpower in fields where there is a shortage of expertise. This would certainly lead to production of marketable graduates who can fit into available positions satisfying the manpower requirements of the country. In fact, a strong leadership is needed in the current context, to make these radical changes in the Sri Lanka university system.
Concurrent Registration and Graduate Studies
In the Sri Lankan university system, the students are not allowed concurrent registration in other programmes while they are registered to one particular degree programme. In this highly competitive world, it is time to change this policy and allow concurrent registration in other courses in the same university or another institution if they so wish. The university may impose some additional conditions when they allow this facility. Accordingly, universities may allow provision for students to register and follow Certificate/Diploma courses concurrently while following a degree programme. For instance, the students should be encouraged to follow part-time certificate/diploma courses in English Language, Information Technology, Management Studies, Legal Studies, GIS, Statistics, Bioinformatics, etc. conducted by the same university or another institution. A nominal course fee may be charged for the second qualification. Such additional qualifications would place them at an advantageous position and will considerably enhance the employability of our graduates.
In addition, postgraduate training will undoubtedly improve chances of obtaining better employment after graduation. Therefore, it is better to encourage and promote students to go for postgraduate education and training in desired disciplines if this is affordable. It is necessary to promote graduate studies in specific areas leading to MSc, MBA, MTech. etc., which may include technological internships in industries and other institutions. Most graduate programmes have components which will improve student’s communication skills, interpersonal skills, management skills, and group work experience. Such programmes are available in the state sector as well as in the non-state sector institutions. Postgraduate institutes of the university system such as PGIS, PGIA, PIM offer many such programmes in this direction.
*The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission