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Digging Deeper Podcast | Is A College Degree Still Relevant?

With the advent of internet, the universality of data and access, livelihoods have become democratized in a way that could not have been imagined even two decades ago

Oct 1, 2019 / 06:20 PM IST

R Mahadevan | Rakesh Sharma

Ever since we can remember, getting a job - a good job - has meant the 10+2+3 routine - 10 years of secondary education, followed by a “+2” and a degree. This was especially true during the boom time of the probationary officer’s job in the banking sector obs in the late seventies and early eighties. This changes slightly when it comes to professional courses, where you would do a four-year or a five-year course after the +2, and then perhaps move on to do higher studies in pursuit of better opportunities.

But the advent of software in our lives in a big way sometime in the eighties changed things very quickly. We had focused education that was built on the basis of “horses for courses”. Software jobs required specific skills, and centres such as NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology) sprang up. Graduates of all hues queued up to be trained in specific areas of software development so that they could more or less walk into a job. In fact, it was not even necessary for someone to be a graduate. A +2, or even a secondary education certificate, was enough to take many of the courses offered by these institutes.

There were instances of hundreds of such non-graduates who caught the software bus early, and ended up in really high places in the information technology firmament.


That was perhaps the beginning, in the 1980s, of the idea that a recognized graduate degree, or higher education of some sort, was perhaps not all that important. The software institutes, which virtually mushroomed all over the country, included in small towns, offered tailored courses for a sector where demand was high and building all the time, and the mainstream colleges and universities around the country were simply not equipped to deal with the demand. In fact, computer engineering of any sort was not even one of the important courses in many colleges, leading to the setting up of hundreds of engineering colleges.

Today, the question of university degrees has attained even more relevance. With the advent of internet, the universality of data and access, livelihoods have become democratized in a way that could not have been imagined even two decades ago. Back in the seventies itself, the kind of degree started becoming relatively irrelevant in the banking jobs of clerks and probationary officers, and in the pharmaceutical industry where if you had the personality and the gift of the gab you could walk into the job of a medical representative. But still, it was the degree which did the trick in these instances. Without that, you couldn’t even apply. To that extent, higher education - even though not so much what the subject - was important. So, this question of the degree, not to say anything about qualifications beyond it, how is it different in today’s context? In today’s world of a range of employment and lifestyle options, which have enabled people to have a better shot at making a good living by their wits, and the possiblity of actually shifting not just jobs but entire careers halfway through, what is the role and impact of a higher education certificate which one obtains at the age of about twenty?

There is of course no one firm answer to a question like that. The answer would depend on many factors - the person, the place, the expectations. But let’s look at some figures: according to the 2011 census, only 4.5 per cent of India’s population had a higher education degree. That percentage is not likely to have gone up meaningfully in the eight year since. But that’s not a surprise. Though a degree gets talked about, it has always been the preserve of a small minority. If the figure is 4.5 per cent after decades of a nationally incentivized push for higher education, one can imagine what the numbers would have been like earlier. The fact is that in a populous country like India, the numbers of those with higher education degrees would grab attention, the percentage figures provide a better perspective.

Let’s confine ourselves to India. Here, things have changed dramatically over the last decade and a half. Change of this sort is often generational, and we can count a generation in this case as the educational life of a person, which translates to 15 years. With the advent of the internet especially, change has been relentless and the pace of change has been increasingly every year. As a result, people, especially youngsters, have seen their attitudes change. The youngster today is much more willing to take a chance on his life and livelihood that say, a generation back. And if you go back another generation, the reality is almost unrecognizable.

These days, it is no longer enough to just get a college degree, get a job, and then hope to earn away. In today’s ultra competitive setting, reskilling and upskilling is essential to keep one’s nose ahead.

But it is not as if these kinds of skill training can sustain people right from the beginning. For an overwhelming majority of people seeking jobs in the organized sector particularly, a degree remains a starting point. And this is from the points of view of both the job applicant and the job provider. In a situation where the subject of study or expertise is not matched to the job requirement, what could be the determinant?

As an aside, in India specifically, one of the constant complaints heard around the corporate world is the lack of skill in the qualified applicants. As it is wont to say, few of the eligible candidates are actually employable. But that is not the fault of the degree or of higher education in particular. This is a problem with the system, it was flagged quite a few years ago, and the problem starts with the school system itself.

Perhaps because we are all used to a process, and there isn’t a clear new process available to supplant the current one, employers, especially in the government sectors, prefer to go with the tried-and-tested one of formal qualifications.

Higher education, as represented by a degree from a recognized university is still vital in a scenario where there is no guarantee of a specific job or career. One often faces the situation of having to move not just jobs but careers. The next job can often be something that has nothing to do with the earlier one. In this case, a degree is what would enable the candidate to make the most seamless jump. And this is because a skill oriented course or a knowledge or skill enhancement module would address a specific narrow need, and its application would be highly context specific. A degree becomes an easy and long-standing reference point to assess the overall capability of the candidate to handle a task or to learn a new one. This is not to say that a degree somehow is a sureshot pointer to capability; only that this is a time-honoured way to put a tick against a candidate as to their basic intellectual capacity and commitment.

In a case of a person who did a private computer course in a tier-2 city in India in the very initial years of what turned into an information technology boom, he went on to gain respect and expertise in information technology, even ending up being granted patents, in spite of not completing a degree, it is also to be noted perhaps that he did have to, many years later, fetch a course certificate from his alma mater in order to become eligible for a new job that still insisted on evidence of some kind of recognized study course - and this was in spite of that fact that his suitability for this job had been irrefutably proved by his decade-plus experience and excellence.

That was almost three decades ago, and the centrality of a “proper” college degree is sure to have become less important. The shape of courses has changed over the years, and continues to change. Take the example of the technology industry, which moves at a pace where skilling, reskilling and upskilling have to be done regularly. Specializations change, expand, contract, and this has brought in a new discipline which enables students to get up to speed as they go along. Colleges and institutions have started courses that go under the name of ‘apprenticeships’ where students are trained on the precise skills they will need. Flexibility is built into the course also in the way they require the student to pay only when they get a job. And of course, the institutes promise a job. And it is not just educational institutes which offer these apprenticeships; employers do, too. Especially in the area of technology, this ensures best value for everyone concerned.

This can work in most professional areas where continuous skilling is required. Such flexible arrangements mean that nobody needs to put their lives on hold at any time during their career. Once this is a widespread enough reality, you could afford to start out with just a small focused skillset because your career will take care of the rest.

It’s actually been quite a few years since the skill gap has been addressed by various entities offering structured and personalized courses online, with material available on sites like YouTube. Udemy, Coursera and Khan Academy come to mind. EdX offers thousands of online courses in a range of subjects, with the advantage that these courses are certified by leading international institutes such as Harvard, MIT, and CalTech, which are just a small sample of the 140-plus institutes. The manner in which subjects have been broken down and the granularity of the courses offered mean that the chief barrier to a career is just the first job. The modular nature of the courses also means that time and money can be apportioned for study according to immediate need and capability. Learning on the job and in your spare time was never easier; one just needs to have the inclination.

We have probably reached a stage where only those jobs and careers that depend on a solid and widespread knowledge base requires definite prescribed qualifications - medicine, teaching and law, for instance. The mainstream has become increasingly narrower, which means a steadier rather than increasing number of people needing degrees. We are also at a stage in personal economic evolution where future income is much less governed by the extent of education. A survey says that in the US, 40% of the enrolled students drop out of college would be eligible for a course certificate, but their earnings are only marginally more than those who stopped at high school - about 10 per cent. In the case of the US and other western countries at least, this small margin is hardly enough to justify the tens of thousands of dollars that will go into acquiring a degree.

Whether in the US or in India, a degree from an elite institute does make a large enough difference both in terms of the quality of education and also the remuneration that the degree can command. In India, though, the number of postgraduates and doctorates who applied for what were little more than menial jobs at Indian Railways at least suggests that if not the degree itself, the system seems seriously sick, devaluing a degree massively. This also has sociological implications in that it has the danger of lessening the incentive for those aspiring to a higher education from the sections of society who have been historically out of the education system.

According to data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US, not even a fifth of the American jobs require a degree. It is likely to be similar in India too. The rest of the jobs, especially in the services sector, are likely to be based on skills that can be acquired over time. However, native skills are still not in any way a sureshot way to get ahead in life, as far as the world of formal careers is concerned. Someone dropping out of college and tinkering away in a garage is still rather an outlier and not quite considered a trustworthy indication of uncommon skills in professional problem-solving. A vast majority of employers in India, even in the technology sector which puts a premium on the ability to innovate and think out of the box, still baulk at the idea of getting into a new process where employability and requisite skills are based on an assessment outside of academic qualifications.

One argument suggests that the reason employers ask for degrees even though the job doesn’t require it simply because of habit and precedent. It is quite likely that once a new paradigm takes clear shape the method of judging eligibility will also change. None of this is to suggest that higher education is not desirable. Just that it is less of an imperative than ever before. Like always, a college degree is always going to be something that a small minority will have real access to. And today at least, to match that, it is all the less important to get hold of one in order to “make it” in life. Just saying!!

Moneycontrol Contributor
first published: Oct 1, 2019 06:20 pm

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