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When the #FeesMustFall campaign first emerged in October last year, the battle lines were drawn.
A year later, it’s obvious that this is going to be a protracted war.
However, as tensions escalate and protests become more violent, I have a nagging suspicion that while the students are fighting the right war, I’m not sure that they’ve picked the right battle.
Let me explain. South Africa has a dual economy, so the question of free education for the poor needs to be addressed, urgently.
We have an extreme youth bulge: a scenario where 60% of the country’s population is made up of millennials.
A youth bulge is a blessing for a country if it delivers good education and has plenty of jobs available.
However, with our high unemployment rate and a stagnant economy, our youth bulge switches to a dangerous liability.
We need to get our young population skilled and ready for employment as soon as possible, and this is where my concern lies. Are those skills necessarily academic?
All industries are experiencing some form of disruption. Digitisation continues to collapse the traditional value chain of each industry.
As a result, the operating systems and business models of companies are changing rapidly out of necessity.
As these companies pivot and adapt their business models, it has become clear that completely different skills sets are now required to run these new, agile businesses.
Aaron Dignan, a management consultant who advises Fortune 100 companies, writes about this new business landscape and highlights the stark difference between “legacy companies” and the new, agile, “responsive companies”.
He says: “Legacy human resources (HR) models tend to value ‘managers’ – people with graduate degrees from prestigious business schools.
“In a ‘responsive company’, the emphasis on people is all about making and learning. ‘Makers’ are people who have skills as opposed to credentials. They think by doing: experimenting, testing and learning.”
If you take this thought and layer over it the new HR mantra of “hiring for attitude, and retrain for skills”, then the link between tertiary education and what the changing job market requires comes into question. A degree no longer guarantees you a job.
Ironically, just before the #FeesMustFall protests were sparked last year, accountancy firm EY announced in London that it would no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing potential employees.
It was a bombshell that reverberated through the HR industry.
EY’s managing partner for talent, Maggie Stilwell, said the new policy would “open up opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background and provide greater access to the profession”.
For one of the biggest multinational graduate recruiters to change its HR policy highlights the vastly different skills required in modern businesses.
One of the reasons for EY’s change in policy is that they say there is no correlation between success at university and success in careers.
Recruiters have long complained that degree scores fail to give employers a true picture of a candidate’s potential.
EY’s policy change came after an independent study rated its in-house assessment programme and numeracy tests as “a robust and reliable indicator of a candidate’s potential to succeed”.
What EY is pre-empting is the widening skills gap that digitised businesses now need to fill.
Disrupted businesses have complex problems to solve and that requires hybrid skills with an emphasis on soft skills: communication, leadership, ownership and teamwork. The most needed, but also the most lacking, are critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Academic qualifications don’t necessarily produce these skills.
A US survey has also highlighted the decline for academic qualifications, citing that the majority of today’s jobs don’t require degree-level qualifications.
In 2010, 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, 43% required a high school education and 26% did not even require that.
Meanwhile, 40% of young people are studying for degrees, which means over half the people obtaining degrees today will find themselves working in jobs that don’t require one.
So, why are degrees being valued less?
Firstly, in terms of scarcity, degrees have become more common, therefore less valuable in economic terms.
Secondly, degrees cost more today, but are worth less. Debt repayments versus future income simply don’t add up.
Thirdly, modern businesses don’t consider degrees essential any more, hence my concern that the students are fighting in the wrong trenches.
Obviously there are many professions that still require traditional academic studies, but overall, the skills needed for future jobs and new templates of business point towards multiple and varied short courses (for example, coding or user experience design), internships and on-the-job learning.
The real and growing trend of “degreed baristas” is concerning. As more people with degrees fail to find employment, they eventually accept lower-skilled jobs.
The less educated/unskilled are then pushed further down the labour market. In some cases, they are pushed out altogether.
For South Africa, this would be disastrous.
So yes, #FeesMustFall – for the poor and missing middle – but there’s also a widening “missing middle” skills gap that we’re not seeing. And therein lies the opportunity.
Dion Chang | City Press
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.