The framing of employability as both the problem and solution is the Problem.
Widespread unemployment will, unfortunately, remain our the reality for some time, as the pandemic continues to grow with its resulting economic devastations at national and local village levels within the country.
Discussions on unemployment, and its converse employment, have historical ties to education and have broad implications for universities.
However, under the present government, employment, unemployment and university education have been inextricably tied to ‘skills’; a narrative that is problematic in itself.
Furthermore, the official government narrative troublingly also serves to both justify educational reforms and to scapegoat universities for the national unemployment problems.
"It equates unemployment with unemployability, the latter encompassing deficits among individuals in skills that are demanded by the market"
Pointedly, the President states, ‘If a large number of graduates who received their education at the expense of the public money are unemployed for a long time, it is certainly a fault in the education system.’ The Budget Speech 2021 echoes similar sentiments, ‘If the best and brightest of our students who complete university education are left with a legacy of unemployment, then surely priority should be given to reform that education system.’ We oppose attempts to frame unemployment as a ‘legacy’ of university education since we believe that unemployment is a legacy of weak and short-term policy formulations based in part on simplistic and one-sided analyses of national problems (including for education) -- as revealed in the above excerpts. Such narratives address neither the numerous crises confronting education and higher education nor the problems of employment facing the nation as a whole.
Considering the present circumstance, we anticipate, brace ourselves and prepare our students for a reality in which employment opportunities will be few. This is an unfortunate consequence of the present state of the world. The government could have acknowledged this reality and taken the opportunity to introduce radical reform that addresses the despair and fear of those marginalized by the education system. It could have highlighted the obvious disparities and injustices in our education system that the pandemic reveals. Instead, policy documents present a myopic vision that some may construe as a blame-game fueled by insecurities felt by those in power regarding their political future.
Unemployability The government reduces unemployment to the lack of ‘skills’ and reduces the lack of ‘skills’ to failures in university education.
It equates unemployment with unemployability, the latter encompassing deficits among individuals in skills that are demanded by the market. In a market-driven neo-Liberal setting, the Government attempts to ascribe the responsibility for unemployability to the ‘un-skilled’ individual who fails to choose the ‘subjects on demand’.
It is at the same time faulting universities for not focusing on subjects which have ‘demand’. Such an approach refuses to acknowledge problems of social and economic inequalities and injustices that have prevailed in this country over a long period; ones caused by the unequal distribution of resources based on class, region, ethnicity and gender, the people’s social capital, etc., which contribute significantly to ‘unemployability’.
UGC (2018) statistics from the pre-Covid environment indicates that 83% of unemployed graduates 2-3 years after graduation are women.
"In a market-driven neo-Liberal setting, the Government attempts to ascribe the responsibility for unemployability to the ‘un-skilled’ individual who fails to choose the ‘subjects on demand’"
Such stark differences cannot be explained by skills alone and are consistent with our own experiences in trying to support women navigate the hostile spheres of work. It is not uncommon for employers to openly discriminate against women by asking specifically for men applicants or by placing quotas for women.
Anecdotal evidence also demonstrates blatant classism in selection processes employed by some organizations in selecting graduates.
These realities are ignored in the construction of the employability narrative.
Similarly, political-economic policies, which have had the effect of creating massive gaps between the rich and the poor and the urban and the rural, are ignored when students are being blamed for being unemployable and universities blamed for making them so.
It is, therefore, short-sighted to make the university the education system, construed as an abstract entity, disconnected with the socio-political context, responsible for the problems of employment. Further, the data reveals that in pre-Covid times, rates of employment one year after graduation was 80% and was no different from those of the private sector, indicating that broad conclusions about problematic employment rates among state-sector graduates are meaningless.
Education for what? Our contention is that the framing of employability as both the problem and solution is The Problem. This is clear from solutions provided by the government in the Budget Speech, 2021, which refer to developing skills based on market demands, focusing on technical and technological education, and disregarding the humanities and social sciences.
We have given priority to strengthening the island-wide network of these new technological and technical universities, by modernising the technical colleges to be attractive to our young men and women, under the “one TVET” concept within a formal regulatory framework, by converting these institutes into a degree awarding entities in parallel to the expansion of opportunities for university education (Budget Speech 2021:16).
Such a framing loses sight of the purpose of education and how education must serve the public. It loses sight of the transgressive nature of universities, its role in pointing out the uncomfortable, of challenging the status quo – in all areas including jobs, employment, vocations, workers, and workplaces. The budget statements and the president’s recent speeches indicate that the government believes the sole purpose of education is to provide for employment. Graduates must fit into the present system, to cater to it and to even facilitate and strengthen it. One of the goals of education of course is to create employment and to help those going through the system to be uplifted by it. However, that is not to say that employment is its sole purpose. Students can and must be agents of change rather than mere products of the market mechanisms catering to the needs of the neo-liberal market economy. Education and learning must stretch our imagination to dream of creating for ourselves a better world. It must not only transform students, but it must also transform the world to ensure that during times such as those we confront today, we have the resilience, strength and institutions that allow us to imagine humane, just, democratic, meaningful and relevant solutions.
Today, irrespective of our political-ideological positions, irrespective of who we are, we are united in the belief that our system of education must change radically and that it must be a vehicle for systemic and drastic social change.
We believe education is one of the primary sectors whose reforms can facilitate long-term, sustainable change to entire socio-economic structures.
Anushka Kahandagamage (email@example.com) is reading for her PhD in Sociology at the South Asian University, New Delhi and Shamala Kumar (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya.