The “Skills for All” program under the “Kamyab Jawan” umbrella program (www.kamyabjawan.gov.pk) offers 240 vocational training programs at no cost to selected candidates.
Traditionally, vocational training programs have been used to bridge the gap between secondary education and the labor market. However, in recent times, such professional training programs have also been in demand from university graduates. The list of programs includes high-tech training programs such as cybersecurity, networking and cloud computing, web and graphic design, but also more traditional training such as beautician, fashion design, electrician, etc
Kamyab Jawan’s website is refreshing in that it has a dashboard of key stats. It reports things like the number of skills scholarships, high-tech and conventional skills scholarships, apprenticeships, and certificate courses. for batches 1 and 2 of the programs. Unfortunately, the figures reported are almost exclusively focused on inputs – such as: money spent, number of students hosted. There is an undefined metric called “jobs created”. Does it refer to the number of participants who found employment immediately after graduation, after six months, after one year? Or is he referring to the jobs that the entrepreneurial spirits among them have been able to create for others with the loans that another part of the Kamyab Jawan program provides? It remains unclear.
The Kamyab Jawan program has just completed registration for Batch 3 which received over 400,000 applications (from 279,000 unique applicants) for 240 training programs. Forty-five programs received fewer than 10 applications. There was a strong focus on high-tech skills. The top five programs by application were: 1) Digital Marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), 2) Amazon Virtual Assistant, 3) Certificate in Computer Science (Web Graphics and Mobile Application Development), 4) Certificate in Cybersecurity and 5) Computer Application & Office Professional, which received between 18,000 and 24,000 applications each.
Perhaps most surprising was the academic background of the applicants – 12 PhDs and 2,259 MSc/Masters graduates applied for the search engine optimization program, which is what graduates of the secondary or at most. Two doctoral graduates and 3,069 master’s/master’s graduates applied for the Amazon Virtual Assistant program, which trains people in personal assistant (PA) services to businesses and individuals online.
To be clear, I am not quoting these figures to make fun of the candidates. On the contrary: anyone with a degree with a high-sounding title but who doesn’t let their ego stop them from doing what it takes to learn a skill that will help them get a job, no matter what. job, even another person. would consider themselves overqualified for, in my respect.
Instead, these statistics – specifically the number of applicants with PhDs (74), MScs/Masters (29,225) and, to some extent, Bachelors (76,899) – are a symbol of indictment of the value of Pakistani higher education. What’s going on at the universities that forced 106,198 BS/MA/MS/PhD degree holders, or 28% of all applicants, to apply for vocational and technical programs usually designed for secondary (matric) and higher (intermediate) school graduates? Which universities did these 74 PhDs graduate from and what do their VCs say about the programs they offer?
A student enrolled in one of the many automotive technology courses was a mechanical engineering graduate from a four-year degree program. When I asked him why he felt the need to take a short diploma course designed for high school graduates, he said he needed the hands-on experience it gave him, because in all his years at university, they had never been shown an engine.
Even a cursory glance at the program applicant data raises many questions: why are there PhD graduates and almost a thousand MSc/Masters degree graduates still feeling the need to take a course on Microsoft Office? Why are there hundreds of graduate candidates applying for cooking/cooking/pastry courses? Why do several hundred graduates enroll in electrical appliance repair courses?
The data compiled on more than 60% of applicants indicates the number of applicants from each university applying for these programs. The top 10 includes 1) University of Punjab, 2) various university colleges across the country, 3) Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU), 4) University of Sindh Jamshoro, 5) University of Karachi , 6) Bahauddin Zakariya Multan University, 7) Islamia Bahawalpur University, 8) Peshawar University, 9) Government College Faisalabad University and 10) Balochistan University Quetta. Applicants from these institutions range from several thousand to about 1300.
The top 85 universities on the list each have more than 100 applicants. The complete list is 291 long and includes almost all local universities and institutes. At the end there are many names of universities from the UK, China and other countries, usually with one applicant each. The names of NUST and LUMS are conspicuously absent from this, albeit partial, dataset. In a sense, this list serves as a (reverse) ranking of universities in the labor market according to employability.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to be part of a fact-finding mission that spoke to a large group of approximately 100 faculty members from various universities and a similar number of students where we tried to find answers. Among the many questions we asked them was whether they felt ready for the job. The overwhelming answer was: No.
Further research revealed that contrary to what it says on the paper, most universities simply ignore all practical/laboratory components of the curricula. Students at a university complained that their zoology lab had a total of five microscopes, only two of which were functional. Professors at another university said they couldn’t hold labs because they were chronically short of chemical supplies. Another university does not have a single permanently appointed faculty member and operates with an all-adjunct faculty (hired on short-term contract). Yet another university had no lab at all and had to contend with a makeshift lab running out of rented space. Contrary to what their program descriptions state, many students graduate without any practical experience. These universities have dropped the ball.
Since participation in Skills for All programs is free, the government (the taxpayer) pays the bill for the Kamyab Jawan program. Depending on the program, the cost of each candidate to the Treasury varies between Rs60,000 and Rs100,000. The cost of the whole program is around 40 billion rupees. For reference, the non-development budget for the entire higher education sector for 2021-2022 is Rs 66 billion.
The question that underlies all the facts, figures and figures of the Skills for All program is: why have universities relegated the practical components of their educational programs to mere formalities that only exist on paper? The Kamyab Jawan program amounts to a subsidy to mask the failures of at least the universities that send large numbers of applicants to Skills for All programs. The internship program for new graduates paying Rs30,000 per month announced a few days ago is more or less the same. This money would be better spent buying missing lab supplies, new computers, paying internet connection bills, and building missing labs. These measures are band-aids, not solutions to remedy the underlying rot.
A solution would address these gaps in university curricula and hold their leaders to account. Some of these same universities are partners in the Kamyab Jawan program and literally bring their own graduates back for these more hands-on training programs. How can that make sense?
And yet, that’s what happens when politicians are more interested in earning brownie points by handing out handouts than solving long-term systemic problems. The PMO now wants to pump more money into the problem by pumping an extra 1 million rupees into this program of (as yet) unproven effectiveness (only anecdotes and hand-picked success stories), rather than repair broken parts of the school and more education system.
Among the learning outcomes of modern undergraduate programs (even in Pakistan) is the ability of a person to seek and acquire new knowledge outside the classroom and to become an independent learner: the ability to learn on your own. In today’s world, it is estimated that a new graduate changes careers five times in their working life. There is a legitimate need for vocational training programs, especially for people with a high school diploma or less, but here we have undergraduates, graduates and PhDs (supposedly able to do independent research) who apply.
Around the world, even societies with well-established higher education sectors are questioning whether degrees serve their purpose of signaling competence to employers. Increasingly, the answer is a resounding no (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Future of the Degree – How colleges can survive the new credential economy”, 2017). This era is disappearing. The 21st century demands reporting a different set of skills – the ability to learn and relearn, work collaboratively, critical thinking, research, evaluating information and problem solving, etc. all those things that our school and our higher education systems hide.
When there is only one book and one program that teaches one way, one point of view, one opinion on everything, there will be no research, no reading of other books, there can be no differing points of view, no critical analysis, no need to collaborate, and no debates.
The author (she) holds a doctorate in education.