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Bachelor’s in ‘General Competence’

Bachelor’s in ‘General Competence’

The short answer is, our education system and its goals pass each other like ships in the night. We need to make the two meet. If we want employers to value a graduation certificate, the curriculum should be heavily influenced by their inputs, and changed as frequently as they demand it should be.

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Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 19:12 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 19:12 IST
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In the last two columns, I pointed out that the majority of young people who attend college are merely passing time, and burning money their families cannot afford. The government, meanwhile, is regulating higher education institutions and affixing its recognition to them in a way that employers don’t find credible. Taken together, what we have is a kind of Humpty-Dumpty college system, that all the king’s horses and men can’t put together.

The system is perfect in design and utterly imperfect in practice. We have a large number of faculty who have been appointed based on their qualifications to teach at colleges whose worthiness has been scrutinised and affirmed. They follow curricula that have been formally approved by committees of other qualified people. This is all exactly how it should be. Why, then, does it deliver such poor outcomes?

The short answer is, our education system and its goals pass each other like ships in the night. We need to make the two meet. If we want employers to value a graduation certificate, the curriculum should be heavily influenced by their inputs, and changed as frequently as they demand it should be. Without this, a lot of what is taught will be -- and is -- obsolete. And to dramatically increase the number of trained young people, we should let a lot more people and institutions teach, and let the market decide which ones are credible.

The sought-after jobs provide a clue that this approach could work. Take the IT sector. No one is counting on colleges to teach what employers are looking for. In fact, it is quite well understood that colleges are not in any position to teach what the market wants. Instead, the students invariably learn what is useful in these jobs from some other institution, usually in much shorter time than they spend in college itself. Most of these other non-college teachers have not been certified by anyone; they merely teach what they know and let the market be the judge of its value.

I have little hope that the establishment can pivot to teach to the market, teach faster and cheaper, or let practitioners teach. More likely, the countless institutions with their courses of low value would join forces with their friends in regulation and faculty associations to ensure that no meaningful reform of hiring, teaching or accreditation takes place. That being the case, we should try something else which could work well to nudge things in a new direction, without requiring a confrontation with the status quo.

The University Grants Commission should enable -- not just allow, but enable -- colleges to introduce a new course. A Bachelor’s Degree in General Competence (BGC).

Teaching a collection of skills under the banner of general competence might seem like a poor cousin to an education in a particular field, since it would lack the depth that other degrees offer. But let’s face the truth -- the overwhelming majority of those who get a degree in a particular subject don’t take up jobs in that field. Ever. We should just acknowledge that, and instead start to offer what the students could really benefit from. Those who are passionate about a discipline could still take the usual courses, but there’s no reason to push millions of students through courses that they have no need for or attachment to.

What would a BGC look like? I’ve been thinking about this with some friends, and also looking for first steps that should be easy to take. So far, we’ve thought of 9-10 modules that should all contribute nicely to building employment-ready competence in young people. Each of these could be taught as a semester-long course, and together they could form the curriculum for an undergraduate programme. Here they are, in no particular order:

l→Public Problem Solving

l→Observation and Engagement

l→Popular Technologies

l→Design and Creativity

l→Ethics and Morality

l→Logic and Deduction

l→State, Market and Society

l→History of Human Achievement

l→Anticipating the Future

There is more than one way to get something like this started. Official backing for such a course would make it more widely useful, certainly, but even without that, one can get started on the different pieces. I’ve co-taught the first course twice already in a public policy programme, and am in talks to start the second in a media and journalism programme, with other teaching partners. A cohort of 8-10 instructors would be needed to cover the full set, but such modular courses can be taught in cycles at different colleges over the course of a year by the same people.

I’d love to hear from readers what else could be added. A set like this, interspersed with short modules on other things, like ‘music appreciation’ and ‘understanding money’ would surely prepare young people much better for their futures. Equally important is that such an education would also be fairer to them, giving them a window to many things that they might otherwise never encounter.

(This is the last of a 3-part series on the past, present and much-needed future of higher education).

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