The title of this article may sound more like a Greek tragedy than a professional article, however, the tragedy is very real in organisational thinking and planning.
All too frequently when we consider business choices, options are simply assumed to be mutually exclusive. An organisation asks itself; do we do ‘this’ OR ‘that’? Do we choose option ‘a’ OR option ‘b’? Do we portray our services as ‘x’ OR ‘y’? In many cases, we should at least be considering the value of ‘AND’. This is not to argue a lack of focus in mission. It is about paying due attention to the options and giving real attention to key strategic decisions.
In an education provider context, the post-secondary sectors are indoctrinated into believing that they are either focused on education OR training and that these roles are mutually exclusive. Universities, in particular, argue that they are focussed on graduate outcomes that are higher order objectives. Their remit is about students “learning to learn” and not focussed on job readiness. The sector is self-limiting by arguing that being ‘job ready’ OR ‘job capable’ are mutually exclusive. In fact, the true role of universities would be to produce graduates that are both job capable AND job ready. If universities want to win back deep support and favourable sentiment from individuals and employers, then they must start to embrace ‘AND’. (Before you argue that university qualifications are still in favour, check the decline in enrolment statistics and the growing momentum behind employers removing qualifications as a hiring requirement.)
The greatest frustration arises from what is placed on either side of the OR equation. We are expected to accept that discipline specific vocational skills are on one side, whereas the more highly valued soft skills are on the other (eg STEM Is Overrated). Employers do not think this way. While they need people that are capable in the technical and functional aspects of a job role, they often employ based on the soft skills. The capabilities that make someone valuable longer-term. These are not mutually exclusive capabilities, they should be joined with AND not separated with OR.
In the outgoing model of our current education systems, I (and others) have been advocating for some time for the alignment of certification with qualification as a means to join the technical and functional discipline expertise with the sustainable, transferrable skills needed to ensure long-term employability. (Note that some Non-University Higher Education Providers (NUHEPs) do this already.) This would at least have been sufficient over the past couple of decades. In the context of the Future of Employability and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, we need to do much more.
The need to develop people with both discipline specific and employability skills remains true, but the requirements for hybridised skill sets (Sources: HBR, Burning Glass) and people that can work across traditional boundaries is not just important, but critical for business success. If our education systems and providers fail to meet these requirements, it is likely that our employers and economy may falter, but not necessarily fail. It is more likely that different approaches and alternative providers will occupy the space that was once the trusted space of universities.
Prior to the explosion of tertiary qualifications, many jobs were more like apprenticeships (eg Lawyers entering as Articled Clerks) as one entered the workforce after secondary school and were developed by their employers ‘in-house’. There were many examples where a combination of provider-based education/training together with [professional] “apprenticeships” were the way that you secured your professional standing. (ie. AND not OR) A current example is that of medicine. Medical students undertake various forms of learning and tutorials on university campuses, but they can never become a practitioner without extended work-integrated learning ‘in situ’ with experienced doctors in hospitals, operating theatres and the like. A professional apprenticeship where they become job capable AND job ready.
Higher education recognised that developing people for any profession should [rightfully at the time] sit within their bailiwick. While the development needs of the Second and early part of the Third industrial revolutions tended to be served with reasonable success by outsourcing human development to education providers, things have changed. It can be argued that some courses should never have been entrenched in a higher education model that removes them from practical application in the world of work. Unfortunately, many experience-based qualifications have been converted to classroom-based learning, and as a result, both readiness and capability for work have suffered while the qualifications have become grist for the economic mill of universities.
The push towards greater levels of ‘professionalism’ by organisations and industries has been translated into a requirement for a university degree. Professional status being dependent on earning a degree is reasonable, but only if the qualifications have the professional capabilities embedded throughout their multi-year journey, AND if they are authentically assessed. It is not difficult to show, however, that while aspects of professional capabilities may be embedded in some qualifications, the assessment of those capabilities is severely lacking in many cases.
It is worth noting that Australia is lagging in the next wave of higher apprenticeships that emerged in the UK in 2015. Professional Apprenticeships together with Alternative Credentials can go a long way to meeting the needs related to the Future of Employability. Instead, we are led to a series of unnecessary dilemmas emerging from divided educational systems that limit our thinking regarding their roles and potential.
A contributing factor is our habitual exclusion of opportunity by the use of ‘OR’.