'All I Want is One Job': The Fine Print of Education–Employment Linkages

What recourse do students have when jobs remain elusive even with a postgraduate degree in hand? This article draws on preliminary results of a survey conducted by the authors among postgraduate students of both the natural and social sciences in a top-ranked state university. 

The Modi government came to power with the promise of creating two crore jobs, but these promises remain unfulfilled. As many students in a survey conducted by the authors pointed out: all they want is one job. However, even this is hard to find. Are students inherently unemployable, or, have educational institutions failed to focus on producing employable graduates? For academic institutions, student placement is prioritised only to be reported to the National Assessment and Accreditation Committee (NAAC)—there are 20 points at stake, which contribute to a higher university rating. However, these placements, if any, often do not match students’ skill set. Until academic institutions become accountable for their graduates and train them in relevant skills, political parties will continue to lure them with non–existent jobs. This article draws on some preliminary results of a survey of postgraduate students of the natural sciences and the social sciences in a top ranked[1] state university, conducted in February and March 2019. A total of 107 respondents were surveyed across eight departments, with an average of 12–15 students per department. The respondents were final semester students, on the verge of completing their degrees. As was evident from the responses, options of immediate employment are few; better-paying ones are even fewer or non-existent. Being insiders to the higher educational system, we draw upon our experiences to make some informed conjectures on the underlying reasons.

The Many Faces of Education

The divide of academic pathways is often understood as a function of marks. After Class 10, higher scoring students opt for the sciences, while those who score less get nudged into commerce and arts. This divide is deep-rooted and centred in differences in social and cultural capital. By the time the students reach a higher education institution, this divide is too intrinsic and too stark to bridge.

On the one hand, students in the natural sciences, whether they manage to make the grade for professional courses or not, are typically urban, middle to upper middle class, and educated in the English medium. Presumably, they have fewer learning deficits. On the other, arts students are typically from rural and agricultural backgrounds, from poorer households, educated in regional languages and very often, first-generation learners. This divide can be felt in the classroom, drawing upon the dynamics of who mingles with whom. Across the chasm, the expectations from education vary—they are shaped by students’ backgrounds.

The urban, English-speaking elite, clustered in the sciences, have global ambitions: in some cases, their disciplinary orientation pushes them into it. As pointed out by a student, “The infrastructure for Chemistry in India is so bad. Everyone wants to go abroad.” For others, a precedent within the family or social networks helps make this decision. For instance, a student said,  “My brother is studying in the US; I am also planning to apply [there] next year.” What bothers these students is the education on offer. Their complaints are wide-ranging: incompetent teachers, outdated syllabus, no room for creativity, memory-driven examinations and poor grading. In short, this “top-ranked” university did not provide these students an education to be proud of.

The other section of students—rural, poor and educated in the regional languages—have no such complaints. On the contrary, they are quite happy with the university and about being a part of the university campus, with access to electricity, water, sanitation, transport and a cosmopolitan environment. The experience of the city is integral to their experience of education. They feel that the teachers are fantastic, the syllabus is wonderful and they are very proud of the university. It is plausible that their background has a part to play in this exuberance since they come with a long history of learning deficits, poor teachers, and dysfunctional academics. 

These two worlds converge in university spaces, only to diverge again in pursuit of employment, where the real shocks lie.

Education: A Stairway to Nowhere

Admissions to university departments usually involve an elaborate process of screening and scrutiny. The odds of getting through are skewed. In our survey, for the 2018–19 academic year, the university's chemistry department received 4,000 applications for 150 seats. The social sciences streams—economics, sociology and political science—received around 400–500 applications for 60 seats each. The computer science department also received applications in thousands.

 
Upon acceptance into the university, whether in the natural or social sciences departments, it does not take long for students to realise that they are not particularly employable. Even when they find employment, the terms are unsatisfactory. A student reveals a widely shared frustration, reflective of years spent studying, with no returns: “After so many years of studying, what I get is a lab technician job of Rs 20,000. Those who do diploma courses in computers after Class 12 get more.” Moreover, a postgraduate degree may not be a sufficient differentiator—something more is required. This “something more” is hazy. 
 
If postgraduate degrees have any value, it is in academics alone. And yet, they are necessary but not sufficient, compelling students to clear National Eligibility Test (NET) or State Eligibility Test (SET) exams to be eligible for teaching or to register for a PhD. These exams, other than their difficulty, are also a matter of chance. According to the UGC,[2] only six percent of the appearing candidates qualify.
 
The other important channel of employment, especially for those studying the social sciences in regional languages, is through the administrative services exams—the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) and the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)—a very tempting route to formal employment. In fact, these students have little else to aspire for. For them, leaving the university space amounts to going back to farming or other informal labour, something they are desperate to avoid. On the ground, this has some very important repercussions. University hostels are filled with students who jump from degree to degree, spending several years in pursuit of elusive government employment till they are no longer eligible for these exams. They are the same students that Jeffrey (2010: 465) quotes as the ones who do “timepass,” or are simply “hanging out with nowhere to go.” Finally, these students are resigned to swelling the ranks of the unemployed or the precariously employed.

The Disconnect Between Academics and Employment 

In How Children Fail, John Holt (1964: 176) states that "it was the school Itself, boring, threatening, cut off from any real experience or serious purpose, that made [children] dumb." Is higher education any different? Just like in schools, students pursuing higher education are expected to conform to rules of the discipline they study. Any deviation or attempt to learn from the field and engage with problems is met with resistance, ridicule and even reprimand.

Consider the following experience of some postgraduate students in economics, who presented their dissertations to a panel which the authors were a part of.

The first student had worked on the increasing participation of men in waste collection, with inputs from Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a trade union of waste pickers. The second student had worked on the linkages between superstition and health-seeking behaviour, drawing on the work of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS). The third student tried to explain the problems faced by the tuberculosis units in the city. Another student had worked on shelters for homeless persons, which were being run by the urban local body. 

A common response from the panellists was that the topics and their treatment were "not economics." These topics could be part of management, sociology or any other discipline, but not economics. Student experiences from the field were therefore reduced to some kind of storytelling. Such feed was worrying because these students were meant to specialise in development studies and urban development.  

If something does not fit a discipline as perceived by academicians, but matters to people on the ground, what should hold greater sanctity? Can academicians move beyond loyalty to their subjects and work with the understanding that people matter more than models? Not only do academicians reduce academics into watertight compartments, but they often also expose students to pettiness, especially when it comes to grading. Across disciplines, students in our survey felt that academics were "boring" and lacked "creativity." As one student pointed out, “The professors should make the courses more relevant to what we will encounter in our professional lives. Stuff to memorise is not education.” And yet, despite the failings of the education system, students continue to endure this drudgery in the hope of a job. 

The job market is not concerned about the theories of employment that these students may have learnt. The market is a great leveler of academic hubris induced into both faculty and students. While academicians are intolerant towards the transgression of boundaries, such transgressions are commonplace in the job market: a call centre may hire someone with an MA or a BA in history or even economics, as long as the candidate is fluent in English. Students who have studied these subjects in the regional languages, however, are denied this opportunity.

Divided by Disciplines, United By Joblessness

Higher education is mired in missed opportunities. As revealed in our survey, almost all students felt that they should have studied something else, which they believe could have made them more employable. History students regret not studying economics, assuming that the latter would have provided a better entry into the job market. Economics students felt similarly about statistics. Physics students were envious of those studying computer science, who in turn regretted missing out on engineering or management. Barring a few students, almost no one had any clarity regarding jobs and most students were anxious about their future. 

Is there a way to accommodate the increasing number of graduates in India? We are progressively transitioning into a phase where the well-educated may be employed in the informal sector. Often, education also does not empower them to move beyond the gender stereotypes of occupations. These may sound like aberrations, but the labour market is rife with them. To draw from an old argument, the educational system is doing precious little to equip students for the world of jobs (Dore 1976).

Can the Precipice be Avoided?

The present state is hardly sustainable: academic institutions churn out more graduates, postgraduates, and even PhDs than ever before, most of whom are clueless about the future. Many aspire for teaching positions, which are difficult to attain and often deeply embedded in corruption. As one such aspirant pointed out, “It doesn’t matter if you are NET, SET or JRF [Junior Research Fellow]. Colleges ask for a donation for a lecturer’s post.” On the institutional side, departments function by exploiting the services of temporary or visiting staff, with permanent positions remaining unfilled for years. However, filling academic posts is only a partial solution. In any university or college department, once these jobs are filled, they remain blocked for years. Meanwhile, departments continue to produce graduates and postgraduates. This beckons some larger questions. Can we think of postgraduate students as more than just teachers of the future? Can they be encouraged to transfer their skills beyond academia? These questions cannot be left to institutions alone to answer. The state must intervene. The following practical insights, gleaned from student responses, can be useful irrespective of who forms the central government in 2019.

First, the divide of languages needs to be addressed. Students who have studied in the regional languages, particularly those who opt for the social sciences, need to have access to some remedial or preparatory support for both the English language and their specific subject in English. If getting a white-collar job is seen as an indicator of progress, as was the case for many respondents in our survey, the knowledge of the English language is very often the key to it.

Second, the gap between theory and practice needs to be narrowed. The state has to initiate a dialogue between academia and industry. Most departments in the university surveyed had little or no signalling from the employment market. They were functioning as discrete, stand-alone units with no inputs from either the industry or civil society.

Third, government attempts to intervene and support employment have been directed through state schemes. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was one such intervention for addressing rural distress. A programme on similar lines is overdue for addressing the employment distress of the educated. Courses need to be designed to impart not only employment-oriented skills, but to also foster entrepreneurship. There also needs to be a larger component of practical exposure, something that is grossly lacking.

Fourth, in government initiatives such as Skill India, there is a demarcation between educational institutions and those that impart skills. These initiatives and the processes of certification of skills have been criticised as detrimental to the informal workers in the unorganised sector (Sadgopal 2016: 36). A framework for skill development needs to be integrated within existing delivery systems of higher education.

The state of education–employment linkages described in this paper are indeed alarming, and a concerted government effort to alleviate this employment distress is the need of the hour. 

 

The authors would like to thank all the students who participated in their study, who shared their insights on education, employment and allied anxieties.
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