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What to study?

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June 29, 2016

A few days back, I received a call from a friend who I had not met for a few years.

“I wanted your advice on what my daughter could choose after completing her 12th grade,’’ he said.

My response to him was that it depends on a range of factors, such as his daughter’s interests, preferred career destinations (Nepal or abroad), her academic track records, family’s financial capacity to pay for tuition and other educational costs, and so on.

This was not the first time I encountered similar questions from friends. But I have always responded vaguely like this case, always lacking any concrete suggestions. This latest experience prompted me to explore to know more on issues of academic choices, so I would be in better shape if anyone turned to me for suggestions.

I do have some knowledge and experience about education in the West. Having studied in Nepal, India and the UK, and worked or collaborated with a number of educational institutions in the West and Asia, it seems that I am indeed better positioned to offer advice. But I always seem to have undermined my ability. In retrospect, I see that I myself struggled taking decisions about my education in relation to financing, making right choices of course, and deciding where to study.

To complement my experience, I turned to Internet for quick research to accumulate some interesting things to share about planning University education, either at home or abroad.

Changing context

The first important thing to note is the fact that the entire project of education is undergoing a massive crisis globally. Graduation does not guarantees job as universities have often failed to produce job-oriented graduates. Employers ask fresh graduates to work as interns, mostly without pay for some time before deciding to offer them a paid job. Likewise, higher degrees also seem to be a waste of time and resources, as graduates end up doing things not related to their formal expertise. Only a small proportion of educational institutions, degrees and courses are serving students well by actually providing them practical skills to perform at the job market. A survey of 1000 industry leaders and academic managers published in Forbes magazine in 2015 shows that only half of the graduates were deemed fit to take job at the time of graduation in the United States. This proportion is even worse in the developing world.

These problems add to the difficulty in choosing institutions, locations, degrees, and subject areas.  Almost everyone in the developing world wants to pursue higher education abroad in the Western world. If a student wants to work and live in a Western country after completing education, studying abroad seems a plausible act. But for those who want to return home after graduation, the many variants of Western education could inflict some serious issues.

Wrong knowledge

A few years back, one of my colleagues who did a PhD in biotechnology returned to Nepal. After a year of failed effort in trying to find a job that could match his skills and interests, he left Nepal. Given his field of expertise, it was not possible to initiate a private venture, like medical doctors set up clinics.

There was hardly any opportunity in Nepal. Biotechnology was a subject offered by the West, but picked by a Nepali student unaware of job prospects at home.

The problem with Western education for returning students is not just the technical misfit such as the one mentioned above. Students are trained in highly sanitized and stable political and economic contexts, and all educational learning focuses on fine-tuning things within such environment. For instance, students of forestry in a US University are asked to focus on trees and forests. Some courses are more interdisciplinary, providing students to also look at how communities interact with forest. But these courses do not contain information about the kind of poverty and poor people who live in and around forests in the developing world and related issues. Hence, the students are not trained to tackle interconnected problem of poverty and forest. Equipped with such knowledge, graduates return to Nepal, only to find themselves in a frustrating context where poverty is a major hurdle in forest management. The messy political environment adds to their frustration.

Problem at home

Education at home has its own myriad problems that are even more serious. Nepal’s education system still follows a gurukul philosophy, which considers a teacher as a guru and student as a chela; the former is often treated as all-knowing and dictates, while the latter unquestioningly accepts, making knowledge one-way traffic. My interaction with dozens of students studying in Nepalese and Indian universities (including Masters and PhDs) confirm that there is very limited amount of critical thinking and analysis students are required to pursue. Western educational institutions fare much better in terms of pedagogy.

The most revealing case through which I learnt the pedagogical difference is from my own daughter’s reflection. After she completed the last two years of primary school in Melbourne, Australia, I asked her what differences she noticed in Australian and Nepalese education system.

“In Nepal’s math course, I just memorised a math formula without knowing what it meant, and here I understood how that formula works,” she replied.

In Nepal and more generally in South Asia, schools include quite heavy materials in the curricula but invest too little in making pedagogy effective. Education is seen more as getting a degree rather than a process of acquiring knowledge and personal transformation.

Opportunities

If higher education institutions based in Nepal can adopt West’s critical learning pedagogy, that could offer a perfect choice for students planning a career at home. The National University of Singapore (NUS) and some other universities have successfully done this. But this model could not be helpful for many South Asian countries and academic institutions given their limited capability.

Subject matter

Besides location and University pedagogies, subject matter issues in University education are also important in deciding the right educational institute. Although there is still pressure on students to choose highly acclaimed subjects such as medicine and engineering, this has reduced significantly with the introduction of new subjects and a range of new specialization areas where students can excel. A subject is not good or bad in itself; most subjects have good prospects in the job market, especially if you are among the top twenty percent. For the majority, a careful subject choice still matters. This is where students and parents need guidance and specialist advice. My advice here is to use a clear navigational framework to take the decision.

Making a choice

In my view, a career choice navigational framework can be seen as one consisting of a range of questions that need to be tackled in choosing locations, institutions, degrees, and subjects. This involve asking a range of questions in a sequential order.

First, there are those related to career: what kind of career a student enjoys – such as outdoor (like a civil engineer), lab-based (like a as pathologist), community based (like a social worker), exotic context (like an astronomer or pilot) and son on. A person who recently joined civil engineering in the University of Sydney informed me that he joined the course because he liked outdoor jobs that involved moving from place to place.

Second set of questions involve ascertaining student’s competency level as per the requirements of the prospective academic institutions. These cover a wide range of areas such as choice of subject, language skills, computational and numeracy skills. Often these determine a student’s likelihood of securing scholarships in universities abroad.

Third question is about the finances available to student’s family’s to invest in the education. Many students go abroad on loans and are hard pressed to work to pay it back. This undermines educational achievement and subsequent employability.

Finally, questions have to be asked about job prospects. For instance, is the job prospect for a particular subject is likely to change by the graduation time? This is probably the hardest question, but with some expert consultations on a narrow range of subjects, it is possible to arrive at some sense of how job markets are likely to evolve. Finally, many students think of finding jobs; but there are some who just want to get an exposure through the education and later want to set up their own enterprises. These are entrepreneur breeds, who do not want to delve too much into a particular subject, but want to learn skills to translate ideas into viable business. Not everyone can find capital and ideas to run a business but there are cases which shows creative people are able to set up and run business from scratch.

Moving ahead

Questions about which subjects to study and where have no simple answers, at least in the context of country like Nepal. It is important to look at the context, prospects, competencies, career preferences, and financing capability. A simple approach is to think, explore, and consult knowledgeable people before making a final choice on the University education that will have lasting impact on life.

By Dr. Hemant R Ojha

The writer is a researcher at University of New South Wales, Australia.