Welcoming a new breed of workforce

Last Updated : 22 June 2016, 18:59 IST
Last Updated : 22 June 2016, 18:59 IST

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Universities around the world are facing acute pressure to become agile and flexible organisations, capable of adapting to disruptive technologies, the changing dynamics of the 21st century job market as well as the emergence of the so-called ‘impact’ economy.

To understand the many problems, let’s delve deeper into the current education system.
Firstly, technological disruption means that content is no longer king in higher education. Not so longer ago, academics were the guardians and embodiments of expert knowledge. In the open, networked society, that is no longer the case. Technology has meant that anyone with an Internet connection can access high-quality information, whether from umbrella sites such as Udemy or through the massive open online courses (MOOC) that universities themselves offer.

Borderless endeavour
Just as technology is disrupting business as usual for universities, industries from retail to engineering complain that graduates are not ‘work-ready’. The main complaint from employers is that while students emerge from degree programmes well versed in disciplinary knowledge, they lack a relevant skills base. A recent report from Deloitte and the University of Oxford concluded that graduates need “new management and leadership skills, creativity, entrepreneurship and the ability to solve complex problems.”
Thirdly, young people are turning away from conventional career paths in finance, management and corporate business in their droves; the appeal of what David Graeber memorably described as ‘bullshit’ jobs where the only way to survive at work is to leave your values at home is on the wane. As Arianna Huffington has powerfully argued in her book The Third Metric, the weight of science and popular opinion is moving people to re-evaluate what their career should offer them. Wealth, power and material success still motivate some, but for many others it is a life of purpose and service that calls louder.

It helps that the inexorable growth of the impact economy, comprising not only social enterprise but the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arms of mainstream business and the burgeoning ecosystem of investment and incubation which supports it, offers an electrifying alternative to the mainstream jobs market.

Taken together, these trends are forcing universities to broaden the horizon of their purpose. It is increasingly obvious that mere education is inadequate to capture what the university experience needs to be. What the world needs are empathetic, resilient, agile, creative and effective problem solvers and the role of universities is to nurture these attributes. We have coined the term the ‘borderless leader’ to express the full spectrum of those attributes, emphasising the fact that young people are entering a job market, where they will need to be agile, mobile, and fluent in a multiplicity of operational environments.

So, how should universities respond to the call for ‘borderless leadership’? Over the past 10 years, social entrepreneurship has emerged as a popular engine not just for sustainable and innovative social change, but in the cultivation of critical skills for the new world economy. In many ways, social entrepreneurship is the ultimate ‘borderless endeavour’; it demands thinking beyond sectors and dogmas. Being a social entrepreneur involves drawing on business models from the private sector, the mission of civil society organisations, and aspiring to the reach of government agencies.

Social entrepreneurship involves the creative assembly of models, practices and perspectives for social change. It involves employing systems thinking and design thinking at the same time, and focusing on meeting the needs of both customers and beneficiaries. You have to learn how to speak the language of profit and social benefit with equal conviction and without contradiction. It is not just the substance of social entrepreneurship which invigorates higher education practice, but the method of learning it brings with it.

Social entrepreneurship offers a route out of tired assessment formulas. Because social entrepreneurship is primarily a field of practice, it naturally lends itself to experiential teaching and learning. It forces course leaders to think beyond the exam and essay. Not only are both of these forms of assessment outdated and disliked, they are also poor indicators of problem-solving aptitude and social and emotional intelligence — vital competencies for today’s graduates.

The growth of social entrepreneurship courses around the world has resulted in a wealth of open access resources for new entrants to find ideas and templates for course design. Many courses assess social entrepreneurship through business plans, presentations and prototype demonstrations — precisely the kinds of real problem-solving and presentations skills that are in scarce supply.

An Australian report of graduate employers has recently shown that people who can demonstrate creativity, presentation skills and general enterprise skills can command $,9000 dollars more than those without. The same report suggests a 65% growth rate (between 2012-2015) in the number of jobs which require creativity, and 26% in those which require problem-solving.

Not just skill building
Beyond skill building, social entrepreneurship — and in fact, entrepreneurship of any hue — builds character, or what social psychologists call psychological capital. Entrepreneurship builds psychological capital by helping one build resilience and risk tolerance. It also builds wider entrepreneurial dispositions, which are useful not just for those looking to start up their own ventures, but to make decisive contributions in existing organisations too.

In my experience, social entrepreneurship is a kind of gateway drug for assessment innovation. Once you ditch the exam and the essay, it’s hard to go back. Indian universities are beginning to realise this, mainly because they are increasingly global in their outlooks, benchmarking their standards not against each other but the cream of the UK and USA institutions. In some areas, Indian universities are leading the sector, particularly in terms of social enterprise incubators such as those at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and those at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, but we are also seeing growth in the number of new postgraduate courses in social entrepreneurship.

The new breed of graduates demanded by the global economy — collaborative, creative, resilient and empathetic — deserves a new university made in their image. Embedding the ethos of social entrepreneurship at the heart of higher education is a necessary and decisive step in that direction.

(The author is director, University Social Entrepreneurship Programme, University of Southampton)

Published 22 June 2016, 17:04 IST

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