August 19, 2016

What we expect from university graduates

All over the world, more and more people are pursuing higher education as a means to enhance their job prospects, to raise their social prestige, and to satisfy their thirst for advanced knowledge. Countries, both developed and developing, are also reforming their higher education sector and promoting access as a means of improving their human resources and research capabilities not only to fulfill the human resource requirements of their business, industry and service sectors, but also to be more competitive and innovative, improve the quality of their products and services, be less dependent on overseas expertise, attract foreign capital, and to enhance social and economic conditions.  So also in Myanmar, the number of universities and student enrollment has increased tremendously.  The increase in Myanmar university enrollment stems from positive factors such as greater access to higher education institutions, and greater demand for advanced knowledge and skills, as well as from negative factors, such as,  due to lack of decent paying job and quality vocational education for high school graduates, students having to continue with higher education.
Topmost among the expectations from university students and parents is that, after obtaining a university degree, students will have acquired the latest knowledge, cutting edge technology and research methodology, in commensurate with the degree they have pursued. They also expect that the degree obtained will help graduates secure some kind of well-paying job related to their field of study.  For those who wish to continue their education either in Myanmar or abroad, graduates also expect it to serve as a firm foundation to pursue advanced knowledge. On the other hand, employers expect university graduates to come to them equipped with employable skills and to be able to use their new employees with minimal training.  In addition, in this age of ICT, employers expect university graduates to have a mastery of basic ICT skills such as, word processing, use of e-mail, the Internet, and certain softwares.  On the part of the country, it expects university graduates to possess the required knowledge, and soft skills needed by its various sectors and to be able to leapfrog to economic and social development, as return for the huge investments made in higher education.  Moreover, the general public that comes into contact with university graduates, in addition to expecting them to possess sound knowledge about their specialized field, and a decent command of English which they have studied since their first year in school, also expect them to have a wide range of knowledge about their community, political, legal, administrative, social, economic, cultural, geographic, and historical knowledge of their country, basic knowledge of the region in which the country is located and the world, and familiarity with current international affairs and trends.
But to the chagrin of many persons, a lot of universities do not fulfil many of these utilitarian expectations. Many universities, especially those offering liberal arts, will be quick to defend themselves by stating that not all universities are institutions that teach professional subjects and that some exist to provide pure learning.  This is very true, looking at the curriculum of the subjects offered by universities. Internationally too, there are different views on the purposes of universities. Mike Rustin quoted by Harriet Swain (2011) in her article What are universities for? (uploaded on the internet) offers two divergent views of universities. “On the one hand, you have the marketised view of universities as equipping people to earn their living, and on the other hand, a traditional view that universities are about pure learning.” However, the majority of students from developing countries, who have very little choice but to attend “ generalist” universities due to scarcity of, and difficulty to get into professional institutions, however much they may value the pure learning they have undertaken, have high hopes that their universities have provided them employable skills that will help get them decent jobs.
The key answer to the problem of graduate employability is to establish more professional institutes but in developing countries, they are too expensive to establish and run and may not be nimble enough able to provide the skills needed shifting demands.  While solutions are being sought, what all universities can and ought to do in the meantime is to teach the soft skills such as communication, collaboration, self-management, and thinking together with the generalist subjects students specialize in. It must be stressed that these soft skills though not technical in nature, are necessary for success regardless of the kind of work that students will do after graduation.
As staff with university education, employers will expect them to be multifunctional. Graduates are expected to effectively be able to lead, negotiate, defend, explain, convince, sell, promote, argue, debate, present, report, offer solutions, reject, criticize, etc. To enable graduates to do so, while providing knowledge about specific fields, it is vital that university teachers, at the same time, also develop the most important soft skill which is higher order critical thinking skills of their students. Examples of such skills are analyzing to assess the value of information, synthesizing to create new knowledge, logical reasoning, and thinking creatively to come up with new solutions which are all needed for effective management, innovation, problem-solving and decision-making at work, and in novel situations.
Developing self-management skills in students should also form one of the goals of university education as it develops maturity and self-reliance.  The first aspect of self-management is dealing with one’s emotions. One must be able to keep in check one’s strong feelings, manage anger and frustration, and know how to face conflicts and stress in a competitive environment and if necessary how to seek help.  The second is the ability to manage one’s time to enable one to be well-organized, such as drawing a work schedule and keeping to it, being punctual, giving the appropriate amount of time to each matter, completing work on schedule, etc.  The third is the ability to monitor and take care of one’s personal matters such as finance, health and social. These include the ability to systematically manage one’s income so as not fall into debt, ability to distinguish between harmful food and those beneficial for health, doing regular exercise to improve one’s health, and making correct decisions about social matters such as, who to form close friendship and relationship with.  Another important quality of maturity is the ability to assess one’s abilities and potentials correctly, and to nurture ambition in commensurate with one’s strengths and weaknesses in order to avoid unnecessary stress, frustration, and failure.
Whatever field a student may specialize in, among the priority skill that universities should develop in their students is communication skills because it is a skill that all students will need at all times while they are studying as well as after they graduate.  Some persons, including students and heads of university language departments, may feel that all persons have an innate ability in communicating in the mother tongue and no special instruction, or learning is needed. Although this may be true in the case of certain persons, it is not totally true for many, when it comes to communicating effectively and efficiently in a professional environment judging from the quality of the mother tongue communication skills of many who claim to be university graduates.  Language departments should be conscious that awareness building and providing regular and systematic practice using modern methods and facilities are of great help in developing communication skills. Successful communication is greatly dependent on making oneself aware of the many factors that govern the use of appropriate language, such as, what you are talking about, i.e. the topic (work, family, education, health, etc.), who you are speaking with, i.e. the participants (family, friends, colleagues, superiors, subordinates, strangers, men, women, children, etc.), attitude of participants towards speaker (friendly, respectful, favourable, positive, sympathetic, approving, neutral, negative, critical, unfriendly, hostile, etc.) where you are speaking, i.e. the setting (office, classroom, conference, restaurant, tea shop, market, monastery, etc.), the medium and channel you are using, verbal (face-to-face, telephone, video, etc.) or written (letter, e-mail, fax, printed, etc.), and the purpose (to inform, to instruct, to preach, to persuade, to entertain, to advice, etc.). They influence how you say it i.e. the style (polite, formal, colloquial, specialized)), and the language used (mother tongue, dialect, foreign language).  Body language (facial expression, posture, orientation, etc.) provides cue to the attitude of the speaker towards what is being verbally communicated as well as towards the listener, and is therefore an important aspect of communication which one needs to be sensitive to in order to avoid misunderstanding and unnecessarily revealing one’s feelings.  In addition, for those who have to communicate with foreigners, they need to also have some understanding of the culture of the person concerned to avoid being misunderstood or seeming to be impolite.
Another set of skills expected of educated persons is social skills. Zins et al (2004) as quoted by Kathlyn M Steedly et al (2008) in Evidence for Education, Vol III, Issue 2 August 8 (uploaded on the Internet), examining from a social perspective, see these skills as relating to recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relations, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically. Therefore, it may be concluded that good social skills involve being aware of one’s role and status in relation to other persons in an interaction and behaving in an appropriate manner and using appropriate language, and at the same time having concern for the well-being and feelings of others. Other skills that may said to form part of good social skills of educated persons are being well-mannered, having international table manners, having dress sense and knowing how to wear for specific occasions, and being aware of how to behave and participate in group activities, ceremonies and social events.  A person well developed in social skills will be a happy, well-adjusted and adaptable individual possessing a wide circle of friends, both as a student and as a working adult, and being able to work as a responsible member of a team. For that reason, universities must provide training in social skills to ensure that their students graduate with these skills as it is a contributory factor in the formation of social networks, undertaking collaborative tasks and career success.
Another important quality that universities should imbue in their graduates is cultivation of interest in the welfare and progress of their community and country.  In order to be a valued member of society, a person needs to contribute to its welfare, either through financial, or material contributions, or volunteering in and giving support and encouragement to social development and humanitarian activities.  Consequently, universities must collaborate with local communities to create opportunities for students to be involved in community development work such as taking part in literacy campaigns or teaching underprivileged children.
The imparting of soft skills that all graduates can apply when they start working will require careful thought to incorporate them in the curriculum, individual syllabuses, methodology and teacher training, so that it will be both effective as well as interesting. Soft skills can be taught overtly and theoretically as well as imbedding them in project work, group activities and internships. At the same time more associations such as debate, dramatic arts and language associations that promote skill in language use, student interaction and creativity should be formed on the campus to assist in informal development of soft skills.
A pertinent question while discussing how to make university education more utilitarian is “How much has universities fulfilled the expectations of its client stakeholders, the students, parents, the employers the community and the government?”
Either due to lack of good public relations, or the need for better performance of their graduates, or other factors, there is certainly a need to make the fulfillment of the expectations of the stakeholders better known to the public. At the same time, universities, their administrators and teachers need to carry out self-evaluation quickly to find out their strengths and weaknesses to remedy any shortcomings regarding the fulfillment of the goals of the majority of students in attending university, as soon as possible, without waiting to be urged by higher authorities, so that they remain responsive and relevant to the needs of students and the  country.


Related posts

Translate »