I've started following @SongezoZibi on Twitter because his tweets (South African politics) are really good and thus far have always hit the nail on the head.
However, today he said:
“I don't understand how our higher education system ... offers qualifications ... the economy has no vacancies for.”
"I also have two friends who have PhDs in Chemical Engineering but spent almost a year looking for work in South Africa! A year!! WTH?!"
I find these two propositions inconsistent. The first proposition seems to blame the universities for offering non-economic-related courses, and thus, making employment hard to come by because the students are not qualified in anything "useful". This is my interpretation of his tweet. The second tweet says that those who are qualified in courses relevant to the economy still cannot find work.
I consider these two propositions inconsistent - implicitly - because the first seems to imply that the lack of work/economic growth is due to universities squandering students' powers on irrelevant courses. The second seems to imply that the economy cannot and will not absorb relevantly-qualified individuals anyway.
So which is it? What is the cause of unemployment and a bad economy? Is it universities offering irrelevant courses? Or is it elitists in the economy not offering jobs to people who are in fact qualified?
I think there's a question of supply and demand, in the second case. It seems to me that if relevantly-qualified persons (doctors, mining engineers, etc.) are available in glut, and the economy is not absorbing them, it's because there simply aren't any jobs going round for these people. There needs to be an increase in the available job positions, and that only happens in a climate where entrepreneurs are encouraged (read: not swamped in red tape and taxes) and are helped to get start-up capital. And the more the universities churn our people with 'relevant' qualifications, the more there will be a glut of people relevantly qualified but unemployable due to the lack of actual positions in the economy. I cannot imagine that jobs are being withheld from properly-qualified persons unless there's something more to be told here - e.g. that the person did not perform well in an interview, for whatever reason. Maybe the employers were 'eurocentric' and didn't get the interviewee's culture/humour/body language. But there's nothing stopping that interviewee from applying elsewhere, or starting his own venture - or is there? Is it perhaps that he cannot get support from government? The idea that there's one explanation for unemployment of a qualified person is simplistic. There could be many factors.
As for the first point, that universities produce people with irrelevant qualifications - well, this has a whole bunch of assumptions underlying it. The first is that the purpose of a university is and ought to be spewing out graduates for the engine of the economy. The second is that "irrelevant" qualifications are irrelevant. A third that comes to mind is that a student's interests, aspirations and skills are irrelevant: what is relevant is the duty to sign up for a course that will benefit the economy. But none of these are true. The purpose of a university, as opposed to a trade college, technical college ("technikon" in the apartheid terminology), or, a gymnasium, in the European terminology - the purpose of a university is to produce educated people, not trained people. If you want people trained for a vocation, send them to training colleges - Damelin, et al. The purpose of a university is to educate. The key difference between a university and a college, then, is that a university offers breadth of knowledge, not just depth. I lament, in fact, the very situation we are in now, wherein universities are being forced to drop this function and start moving to an exclusively training mode of operating.
Let me give you some simple examples.
• At Wits (my alma mater), computer scientists used to be obliged to take Philosophy 1. Why? Because the latter taught argument form, formal symbolic logic, and Boolean logic. All of these are utterly fundamental to computer science. They cannot be omitted. Yet that course is no longer required. The upshot is that you no longer have computer science 1 students that actually understand what they are doing when they use Boolean truth tables in their programming. It's sad, but it's the result of the drive towards training rather than educating.
• Another example: Wits used to offer Genetics for Arts Students. This is a crucial course for anyone going into Psychology, Sociology, or Politics. Because all the students in the latter courses are taught (taught: note), that genetics is irrelevant to race and behaviour. It is incredibly naive and uneducated. In my view, Arts students should also study particle physics, chaos maths, the theory of evolution, and so on. They cannot understand their own disciplines without understanding these. (Really).
• Classics and English: Whatever you may think of British Colonialism (evil!) - the fact is that English and Chinese are the two biggest languages. English is the language of international commerce and science. An economy will fail internationally if it cannot do either English or Chinese. Now: Why is Classics relevant? Because it taught a bit of Latin and Ancient Greek. "Who cares?" I hear you say. "Those are dead languages". No they're not. The word "language" itself is Latin. "Cares" is Latin. "Economy" is Greek. You cannot hope to understand why English uses synonyms like "foreknowledge" and "prescience" unless you know that the first is Germanic/Saxon and the second Latin. "Who cares?" you ask again. Well, the point is, if you know that "science" is Latin, you won't say stupid things like "forescience" or "preknowledge". "Fore-" is Saxon for "pre-", which is Latin. You won't make spelling errors, either. Your communiques with your clients will be professional, clear, and unambiguous.
There are many more examples that I could adduce.
Universities, admittedly, started out as elite bodies for the larvae of the super-wealthy. However, capitalism and the ever-waxing number of middle-class persons, and the economy of consumption, has lead to the proliferation of middle-class prosperity for large numbers of persons. Prior to the capitalism of the 20th Century, most people died around age 30, never got more than a public school primary education, and lived miserable, dirty lives, shovelling coal. That kind of life is now reserved, in the first world, for a minority. Of course we're not ignorant; we know that there's the view that the first world merely imports its slave labour now from China, Africa, etc. We know that the underpriced and undervalued services and products of these regions are gobbled up by the middle-class West without a care as to how many peoples' lives it cost. That's not my point. My point is that in the West, the university is no longer a preserve of elite super-wealthy aristocrats, as it was in the 1700s in Britain and other equally powerful states. The university is now a necessity, not even a commodity, of Western civilisation. It keeps it alive, promotes it, grows it, spreads it. The discourses of the West that have promoted the improvement of human life the world-over - Liberalism, Democracy, Women's rights, Education, Science and so on - are all products of Western universities. The luminaries who first framed the concepts of human rights, equality of all men before the law, the concept of the greatest good being that of the majority, and so on - these all are products of Western universities. And none of these products came from Engineering departments, or courses in mining. We still need these courses, and we still need their voices.
"To further control and dominate how the university is ‘used” -a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative – university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history" -- http://teriyamada.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps/