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ON THE RIGHT: What of labour market demand?


Ralph Jemmott

ON THE RIGHT: What of labour market demand?

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Discourse on tertiary level education, as with education generally, often reflects ostensibly binary and seemingly conflicting perspectives. There are those who espouse the so-called “liberal education”, focused on the humanities, aimed at creating what is loosely called an “educated mind”.
The aim is to produce firstly a type of person with the “right” values, attitudes and sensibilities. Then there are those with a somewhat more utilitarian approach to formal schooling, often termed “education for the world of work”.
The two need not be mutually exclusive. It should not be impossible to produce a person fit for the job market who is still at one and the same time grounded in the appropriate values.
Schooling at the primary level should be totally divorced from any considerations of the market. Primary education is about laying the foundation for future learning.
The market and the primary curriculum should not be mentioned in the same breath. At the tertiary level, however, both the individual and the society should not disregard the utility of schooling. The individual would want to know that he or she can earn a living after years of study.
Similarly, the nation that expends considerable resources on tertiary schooling would want to ensure the cost effectiveness of its expenditures on post secondary education.
This must be particularly true firstly, when revenues are declining and secondly, where economic competitiveness requires that all resources, including the human must be employed to the optimum.
Beyond the secondary level the individual cannot but focus on those areas where the student is most capable of earning a viable living. Recent studies in the United States (US) have shown an increasing differential in earning capacity between graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines and those in the social sciences and the arts.
A CNN report of October 17, 2012 noted that an engineering graduate could expect to earn US$2.4 million over a 33 year period, compared to US$1.8 million for a graduate in education, the arts or sociology.
Thankfully, there are those educated few for whom money is not the sole or even the primary concern.
At the national level there must be an even greater focus on engineering human capital into economically productive areas, always remembering that all education conduces to productivity in some measure.
A Cave Hill spokesman once asserted that slow growth in the region was attributable to low university enrolment. The question is enrolment in what?
It has become common to link post-secondary enrolment to economic progress and the nexus is undeniable, though not as straightforward as some would have us believe. The result in some cases is to “play the numbers game” and increase enrolment not always commensurate with market demand.
The problem sometimes is, and this is  very true in the region, that there is no sure idea of labour market demand.
The mismatch between education and manpower needs is showing up even in the US.
Research might in fact show that the real need in the Caribbean is not for university-educated scientists but for trained technicians, graduates of Barbados Community College and Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic-type institutions.
The tendency in the region has been a continuing emphasis on the social sciences, the humanities, law and medicine. A preponderant number of graduates in the 2013 graduating class at Cave Hill were in the social sciences, law and the humanities. It was recently announced that plans are in train to reorient the focus toward the science and technology. The time is long overdue.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.

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