Education and Employment: Reviewing the Dynamics

Sep 10, 2014 9:02:38 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf talks about the changing demands on graduates as they seek employment after graduation and our responsibility as international educators to adapt to these changing dynamics.

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In the current economic and political environment, educators have an explicit obligation to strive to prepare students for fulfilling and productive lives. This is obvious.

What is much less obvious is the manner in which we approach this responsibility. The dynamics of contemporary reality require thoughtful and nuanced analysis. The ways in which we now live and work are fluid and mutable. We do not have the luxury of continuity; the canon of necessary knowledge that the older generation hands on to the younger has become conditional, of fragile utility and limited relevance. Traditional points of reference are rarely undisturbed.

Our forefathers worked the land in a fashion that they believed was timeless. The skills they taught their children were passed on through generations who may well have been born, lived and died in the same place. Knowledge was rooted in community. We do not have that surety or security of identity. For us, time is no longer measured by the rising and setting of the sun. Community is no longer defined by geography. The core of the modern, Karl Marx wrote, is that “all that is solid melts into air." That may have been a theory in the late nineteenth century. It is now our reality.

Photo: Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin by Alexander Rentsch

It follows that we are keenly conscious that, in many cases, the knowledge that students gain in their studies may be redundant by the time they graduate (if not before). There is, therefore, a potential disconnect between what we teach students and the utility of that knowledge in the world beyond the campus. Entire fields of employment have disappeared over the last 50 years. Over the next 50 years new careers that we have not yet envisioned will emerge. How do you then prepare students for the unknown? In a context that we cannot predict, the critical emphasis shifts inevitably towards the acquisition of skills that may enable students to function effectively in an uncertain future.

This takes us, ironically, back towards the inherent values of liberal education and away from mechanistic forms of vocational training. What is the point in preparing students for functions and roles that may no longer exist? There may be some vocational fields where there is a direct correlation between the knowledge students acquire at university and future employment. However, that is not the experience of most of us and it will not be the reality for most of our students. Our obligation is to empower students to function in a world of flux. Few of us stand on firm ground. Terra is not firma anymore.

This leads us inexorably to thinking about what skills we need to impart to our students as the world turns -- remade by forces of urbanisation and globalisation -- and, where, for good and ill, technology transforms the ways in which we function. The only absolute constant in contemporary experience is the ironic realisation that there are no absolute constants. The capacity to adapt to new realities and to revise assumptions becomes an essential skill. What students learn becomes of less significance than their capacity to reassess knowledge in an ongoing process of adjustment to the turning world.

Photo: The Lost Traveler by MartinaK15

Study abroad creates optimal conditions for empowering students to acquire relevant competencies. As in any good educational experience, students are guided into spaces that are unfamiliar and disruptive of intellectual assumptions and norms. That is what liberal education aspires to in any learning context but, in study abroad, this creative disturbance and disruption is not only intellectual; it is geographic and physical. We take students figuratively and literally into new environments and challenge them to analyse and explore.

CAPA International Education embeds encounters with change in courses and co-curricular programs at many levels. The challenge of this process is exemplified in the “Learning through Internships” course most intensely because of students’ expectation that an internship will have some immediate relevance to future employment. That is not an unreasonable expectation but needs to be modified in an employment environment in which relevant skills are likely to change over the foreseeable future. In short, a student needs to be aware that the experience gained in an internship may or may not be directly transferable to employment in ways that they may have anticipated.

Our agenda in this context is, therefore, broader than that traditionally envisaged. The internship has obvious value but those benefits are not necessarily aligned with student expectations. The process of work experience helps students to mature, to work in groups, to take responsibility and, conversely, to take instruction and so on. Internships are also a mechanism to overcome, what President and CEO John Christian described as, a “vicious circular conundrum” in which young people cannot get employment without experience, but they are unable to get that experience without employment. An internship (and an international internship in particular) enables students to demonstrate potential proficiency to employers. All of that matters.

Photo: Whittington Hospital, a CAPA internship partner in Archway, London by Stephanie Sadler

There is, though, another less obvious value that is at the core of our pedagogy and that is driven by our analyses of the dynamics of change. Our internships are forms of basic ethnographic, or action research. Students are required to become participant-observers in contexts that are likely to be strange to them; they will encounter many forms of diversity in an urban environment. In addition to professional challenges, an international internship in a major city is very likely to contain significant encounters with the unknown (intensified by the fact that many of our students come from rural or suburban environments). Those encounters require students to adapt to the unexpected, to cope with experiences beyond their areas of comfort, and to move towards some level of adjustment to difference.

Among the skills we hope to impart in this context are, therefore: a sensitivity to nuance in new environments; a capacity to function and, ideally, contribute within unfamiliar milieu; and, most importantly perhaps, the ability to understand and describe difference. For those reasons, our students are required to take a course alongside their placement within which they are guided towards enhanced levels of competence in these areas.

The ability to communicate effectively both in writing and in speech is critical. At a recent conference, Craig Kench our Director of International Internships, described our efforts to empower students to go (as he says) “beyond awesome” in their description of what they have experienced: in essence, to speak and write effectively about what they have learned in the work place and in the classroom.

Photo: CAPA's Director of International Internships Craig Kench in the lab with Dr. Moniz who works directly with CAPA interns at King's College Hospital in Denmark Hill, London

In short, it may or may not be crucial to give students particular technical knowledge. That is a matter for conjecture and fortune telling. How many of us know what will be important information in 10 years, or 5 years, or even tomorrow? What we all know is that what really matters is the ability to adapt to change, to analyse the new, to explore with curiosity, and to communicate effectively with intelligent discrimination.

In every level of the educational endeavour, these are key skills. In education abroad we function in an environment that is uniquely suited to meet these objectives. At home, students may confront ideas that are new and sometimes disturbing. That confrontation is intensified by geographical displacement creating a simultaneous synthesis of new ideas and new locations; in education abroad the familiar is disturbed at many levels.

Study abroad aligns with many of the objectives of liberal education: to teach skills that students need to become effective professionals, productive and wise citizens of the countries in which they will live, and fulfilled individuals infused with creative curiosity. Our consequent responsibilities are, indeed, “beyond awesome” as we negotiate the core paradox in which we function; we need to create concrete educational priorities for a reality in which “all that is solid melts into air”.

Thanks Mike!