Employability and Higher Education

Employability and Higher Education

By: R Prasad and A R Aryasri
The challenge of employability in higher education requires a fundamental rethink on the approach. Addressing the knowing-doing-being gap is critical. Beliefs of key stakeholders regarding fundamental aspects of higher education can alter outcomes.

By 2025, India is slated to house the world’s largest population of about 1.4 billion (E&Y, 2013). By 2020, the working age population (age cohort 15-64) is expected to increase from 761 (2011)  to 869  million making India the world’s youngest country with an average age of 29 and about 28 per cent of the world’s workforce. India is expected to retain its demographic advantage till 2040 while China’s tapers off by 2015 (Planning Commission, 2013).A higher demographic dividend can imply higher production, productivity, services, and savings. This opens a pathway for India to move into the league of developed nations in about 10 to 15 years.  The key lies in the higher education system enabling transition from education to employment, notwithstanding the challenge of employability.

What is employability?

Many definitions have evolved over time from those that merely looked at employability as skills in an individual to broader definitions of knowledge, skills, attributes, behaviours and competencies, which encompassed the individual, the organisation and society. Pool and Sewell (2007) define employability as having a set of skills, knowledge, understanding and personal attributes that make persons more likely to choose and secure occupations in which they can be satisfied and successful. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report (2009)  states that ‘employability is a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace—to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy’. Wiley (2014) defined employability as a complex blend of skill, attitude, experience, motivation and interest, underpinned by the ability to learn and to apply that learning to the challenges that work presents.

The employability challenge in  higher education

Once a student is enrolled in a higher education institution, especially engineering and management, employability becomes the prime most concern. Leading institutions have recruiters visiting them, which ensures that their programmes are more sought after. However, employability assessment surveys by various agencies over the years do not present a
rosy picture.

The estimates of employability in India across different  programmes of study which are popular are as listed in figure 1.

Why higher education?

Sharma (2014) found that in as high as 67 per cent of cases, employability issues require structural repair—meaning that interventions are needed for one to two years. In a resource challenged country such as India, this is more effectively achieved through higher education programmes rather than by additional  programmes after the formal higher education is completed.

At individual and state levels, resources and time are the compelling issues. Moreover, formal education has higher societal value. Combined with the abysmally low figures of employability cited above, higher education represents a better option for enhancing employability rather than standalone skill development programmes.

Government interventions with skill development

Sensing the urgency of the situation and the low levels of employability outcomes from higher education institutions, central and state governments have started addressing the issue through various interventions. This step was seen as critical to bringing in investments and creating jobs for a better economic well-being. Five popular central level programmes include the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), Skills Development Initiative Scheme (SDIS), Skill Training for Employment Promotion amongst Urban Poor(STEP UP), Aajeevika Skills Development programmes(ASDP) and Rural Self-Employment Training Institute(RSETI). These programmes target rural, urban and socially disadvantaged segments of the population and range from six days to six months. In the period covering 2011-14 about 5.9 million participants were trained. In fact, poverty alleviation being in focus in the last decade, it became part of the agenda to build a competitive workforce. ASDP and the RSETI targeted disadvantaged rural youth while STEP-UP focused on disadvantaged urban youth. In comparison, the NSDC and SDIS  programmes were more broad based. Participants in these programmes were largely in the age group of 21-23 years with about 29 per cent having completed higher education and 80-90 per cent having at least ten years of schooling; 90 per cent of the  beneficiaries were first timers. The most popular courses which generated maximum enrolments across the five programmes were—computer training, Tally, retail sales and marketing; tailoring; electrical works, mobile repairing; domestic business process outsourcing; beautician; driving; hospitality management; banking and accounting.

The World Bank, 2015, studied the effectiveness of the five programmes. The following points
were relevant.

  • The placement rate was only 27 per cent for the programmes mentioned above.
  • 30-35 per cent of males completed higher education as against 16-28 per cent females.
  • Significant numbers left their jobs within one or two years either for new ones or to drop out and re-enter later.
  • These programmes improved the employability by 7 per cent points compared to those who did not undergo them. Classroom teaching combined with industry based training created stronger positive impact.
  • 28 per cent of trainees indicated that they would not work after the training.
  • Training impacted employment only for those above 21 years.

The critical factors identified for better outcomes include quality and relevance of programmes, effective targeting and selection of trainees, independent assessments and standardisation of certificates, strengthening of post placement support for about six months to one year and linking of funding to desired outcomes. It was suggested that such programmes should be studied along with other human capital investments such as education and long term training programmes. It can be seen that significant improvement is needed at higher education level,both for formal colleges, universities as well as the private players who focus on government funded skill development programmes.

The Telangana Academy for Skill and Knowledge created by the Government of Telangana has trained 62769 students thorough short duration programmes in technology, personal and organisation skills during the period 2014-16 and placed 3683 students in 2014-2017. Jawahar Knowledge Centres operational in the united Andhra Pradesh and later in the newly formed Andhra Pradesh had offered three months programmes of about 250 hours. They trained about 1,81,000 students during 2006-16 out of which about 27,000 (14.8 per cent) were placed. These programmes, largely aimed at graduating students, could have certainly aimed at better employability outcomes.

We emphasise that institutions need to reexamine their fundamentals and the drivers of these fundamentals. These includes purpose, vision, mission,  programmes, markets, policies and regulations, resources, curriculum, pedagogy, learning environment, institutional and student building agenda etc. This can happen cohesively only when the knowing-doing-being gap is addressed.
Knowing-doing-being gap
Education has tended to focus on knowing followed in some cases by doing. Knowing concerns ‘know what’, the cognitive mastery of a subject. It helps in making sense of reality. Doing concerns ‘know how do  things work’. It helps in developing skills and abilities. There is a third element, which plays a critical role in education which is ‘being’. Being is to ‘know why’ and ‘why it works’. It consists of the self-concept, values,  ethics, beliefs and attitudes. For simplification, it is represented by the broad term ‘beliefs’.

Higher education is packed with concepts. Practicing those concepts in the real world setting happens as a distant second. One may count the number of subjects or credit hours in any formal undergraduate or post-graduate programmes which focus on doing as against knowing. Although ‘being’ is assumed, it is completely invisible.

Datar et al. (2011) have examined the knowing-doing-being gap in the context of business schools. They propose that the challenge of business schools graduates not being employable and relevant to society is on account of this gap. Balancing knowing (knowledge), doing (practice) and being (values, attitudes and beliefs) are necessary to achieve the aims of such education. The studies on employability gaps in higher education discussed earlier also highlight that students, education providers and employers tend to live in different universes. The World Bank impact studies highlighted the large numbers who have left jobs as well as those who were not looking for jobs. Both these groups too point to the ‘knowing doing being’ gap. Students and education providers who have begun engagement with each other and employers early on have been able to bridge the gap better. Hence, their employability too is significantly enhanced.

The significance of beliefs

Datar et al.(2011) have examined how business schools need to consider beliefs, values and attitudes (part of the knowing-doing-being gap)to address the employability and other challenges faced by them. The US Army has a model of ‘be-know-do’ for leadership development. Beliefs are considered to be predispositions to actions (Richardson, 1996). In the world of higher education, these play out through key stakeholders.

There are many stakeholders involved in higher education. They include students, teachers, educational leaders (deans, department heads and educational administrators), recruiters, regulators, alumni, ministries of higher education industry bodies etc. While all have the potential to shape higher education, their levels of engagement differ based on the environmental and institutional context. Some of these are key stakeholders who affect the institution at both strategy and operational levels, such as students, teachers and educational leaders. Their engagement needs to be balanced specific to the institution and the external environment for effective learning and employability. Students carry ‘aspirations as well as ‘preconceptions of institutions, jobs, careers and lifestyles. They carry ‘impressions from their seniors, peers and parents. This drives them to seek admission in select programmes. It also influences choice of electives and employers. Once classes start, their ‘assumptions and ‘biases about subjects, teachers and pedagogy, created out by their experiences or fears or those of others, shape their approach to learning. The ‘predispositions of each student towards projects, internships, on the job training, group work, student co-curricular and extra-curricular activities outside classroom influence their participation and engagement and thereby learning and employability. These aspirations, preconceptions, impressions and predispositions vary based on their exposure to employers, employment and education. Therefore, beliefs vary for every student and thereby affect their engagement with education and employability.

Teachers carry ‘expectations about the profile of students who should enrol for the programmes and/or electives. This influences who is granted admission. It also influences what teachers expect from students in class in terms of preparedness, discussion, report writing and evaluation. These expectations influence subject matter discussed in class as well as choice of pedagogy. Teachers have strong ‘conceptions about what is important in the subject and with what emphasis. This impacts curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Teachers place different ‘values on research, teaching, consulting, industry interface, student activities, outreach and other institution building activities. Their participation and engagement in these key ‘educational’ tasks is influenced by these values. Teachers also have their ‘philosophy about learning—teacher centric vis-a-vis student centric. This influences the pedagogy, student engagement and assessment. Such expectations, conceptions, values and philosophies impact learning and employability through curriculum, pedagogy, classroom environment, assessment and other institutional and student activities. Educational leaders include department heads, deans, the institutional head and other educational administrators who are part of management/ ownership. They ‘envisionprogrammes which aim to meet the defined outcomes in society.

Programmes design can attract and motivate prospective and current students. It sets the stage for campus resources and infrastructure. They have strong ‘conceptions about course content, which influences curriculum and infrastructure. They are ‘passionate about how learning should take place. This impacts pedagogy, learning environment, resources and infrastructure. Leaders also have ‘expectations of teachers’ profile and the teachers’ job descriptions. This shapes selection, allotment of responsibilities, teacher assessment and other HR policies. They also have ‘expectation of student profile which impacts admission policies and student regulations. The McKinsey (2012) study shows that those stakeholders who engage early with each other produce better employability outcomes. This is enabled when being influences knowing and doing for all the stakeholders. Understanding and acting on stakeholder beliefs is critical.


About 32 million students are enrolled in the formal higher education system in India. About 40 per cent of universities and 60 per cent of colleges are in rural India (MHRD-AISHE, 2015-16). Graduate and post-graduate students in science, commerce, engineering and humanities account for roughly 83 per cent of enrolment. In contrast, skill development programmes have been able to target much fewer students over the years. For example, NSDC, despite all the central support, has since inception trained only about 9.2 million by April 2017. Under such circumstances, higher education does represent a strategic vehicle for enhancing employability. However, employability in higher education faces significant challenges despite various interventions. Enhancement of employability in higher education calls for a fundamental alignment of knowing-doing-being. Understanding the beliefs of key stakeholders and planned development and engagement through well established frameworks in higher education will enhance employability raising potential for employability outcomes.

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