Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Employment is/as the High Cost of Living

My task this month is to think about something I see afflicting scores of my students; students I spend the better part of two years working with, and am invariably therefore extremely invested in the well-being of: their suitability for life outside our idyllic little campus home. I teach in a postgraduate institution which is engaged in the business of churning out "industry professionals" in the area of Communications Management. As a field of study, the applied area of Management education has come to replace - or sit alongside, at the very least - the preferred domains of generations of Indian parents past: medicine, engineering or preparing for the civil/administrative services.

From the late 90s/early 2000s onward, in our newly 'reformed' and opened Indian economy,  the formulaic pathway to a "good life" - whatever that may mean and wherever such a mythical beast is to be found - has taken the form of studying engineering at undergrad level, then proceeding to render that degree meaningless by not putting it to any use, applying instead for an MBA or its equivalent after it. I say this based on following general trends across India, but also from personal experience: in the six years I've been teaching at my current institute, I've never had a class yet in which fewer than 60% of the students were engineers. Oh, and a sizeable number of my former students from an engineering college I used to teach in the Humanities and Social Sciences department of have also proceeded to apply for MBAs on the other side of their ICT degrees.

I know for a fact that those who didn't intend to study after their B.Tech degrees wound up being placed in companies which effectively viewed them as cogs in a wheel: workers on a new production line, with the benefit of chairs, computers, and air conditioning over their factory-floor working brethren. They coded. Endlessly. Without either knowing or being allowed to ask what it all added up to: that information was on a need-to-know basis, and they didn't "need to know" it. This is part of the reason why it pans out that of the last batch I taught at DA-IICT, scores of people have branched out into fields as diverse as starting tea and mineral water businesses, acting, working with Members of Parliament, and undertaking PhDs in Science, Technology and Society (STS), with most of the rest undertaking - you guessed it - MBA studies.             

My contention is simple: the problem of unemployment or perhaps more accurately, procuring employment suitable and commensurate to a student's education, is not something we're going to be able to fix simply by suggesting there is a breakdown between the curriculum a student goes through, the education system they come from, and their seeming lack of "skills" in terms of hacking the job market. This is a very simplistic reading which doesn't, among other factors, account for the shape-shifting nature of industries - across sectors -  in the hyper-globalising landscape of today: what are the jobs that await these students? What do they demand of an individual? What is the philosophy that underpins them? Are they meant to provide job-satisfaction? Is that a possibility at all, given that most industries today subscribe to (and stem from) the extractive neoliberal paradigm? To let the needs of the market dictate changes in curricula without filtering what it is they seek would wreck havoc. It is vital to remember that education runs the risk of being diminished considerably if it is calibrated in this utilitarian a fashion. We see this already in the low intake and funding cuts forced on Humanities and Social Science Departments world over because they are viewed as frivolous or worse, bourgeois, because they are not seen as being able to equip students with the immediate skills they need to enter the world of work. Since when did education become about just that anyway? Sadly, this isn't a rhetorical question. There is an answer: it became about little else when education became privatised. Monetised. Commoditised. When students had to start taking enormous loans to "buy" themselves entry into the institutions (and networks) that would get them campus placements on the other side of their time with us. When students started thinking of education in terms of that curious phrase I encountered a few years ago, Return on Investment (ROI), giving rise to the specious sense of entitlement which marks so many exchanges in academic institutions today. This is the kind of brute neoliberal logic which forces institutions to constantly bear the demands of the industry they must cater to in mind when designing an educational philosophy or policy, which, as educators, we are then charged with translating into curriculum and classroom practice.

I genuinely don't believe that this malaise affects Millennials alone, but they are the ones who've borne the brunt of the privatisation of education most. The Millennials are the ones who've had to incur the loans they'll spend years repaying, many in jobs which may not, by and large, be particularly satisfying (where they're not actively soul-crushing). Perhaps it is time to revisit what we define as success; what drives people to court debt to become part of a system which extracts punishing costs from those who would be in it; and most importantly, what awaits them on the other side. I know only this: an extractive economy isn't sustainable. Ironically, it makes the least business sense. And you're hearing it from a Humanities major first.

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