June 20, 2017

Interview with Education guru - prof. Arshad Ahmad

CEEMAN brought to Bled an impressive selection of experienced professors to teach our academic staff. One of the most inspiring teachers was Arshad Ahmad, the Vice-Provost, Teaching & Learning at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. Ahmad is also the Director of The Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning. His current research interests are in teaching philosophies, approaches to teaching and students as partners. He is also the subject matter expert for a massive open online course specialization offered by Coursera titled Finance for Everyone.

The following interview addresses the challenges and potential of universities in supporting students cope with the current labor market.


Young people.  Universities are in the business of helping young people develop as individuals and develop into productive employees, professionals and members of society. So, why are young people considered a challenge? Because this generation and perhaps the generation before got a bad deal, a really bad deal. If you look at the numbers, more young people are unemployed or underemployed today than at any time since the Great Depression. Certainty when I graduated, things were different. There was a time when higher education was for a select few, so when students graduated, the law of supply and demand was working in their favor.  They had choices.  Now, the numbers are flipped.  There are an estimated 75 million unemployed youth worldwide. It seems like the youth are living in this kind of parallel universe. What do I mean by that? Universities, employers and students are not connected the way they should be, so each is looking to the others for something they aren’t providing.  It’s very isolating.  This poses a huge challenge when you have very little interplay among these sectors – they should be tightly integrated. And that is not the case. I think that is one of the striking challenges.


Well, I think if you are in any of those groups, you blame the other groups.  So, what do the people in education say? That we are preparing students for the challenging world out there. We give you the tools and the skills so that you can embrace tomorrow’s problems. We give you the frameworks and help you to think. You can now think more than ever before in interdisciplinary ways because of how we are reforming our curricula. From the point of view of higher education, this kind of flexibility and adaptability is essential for any economy to prosper.  Graduates with those abilities, we say, will thrive in any economy and any situation.  We argue that because that’s what we do and we do it well, the education industry is an essential part of the economy. Many employers, though, would say there’s a skills gap.  They often want workers with specific skills and that’s not typically what a university education is designed to do.


Employers everywhere are screaming for people skilled in technology and digitization. The competitive nature of globalization means there are few protections in the markets and so companies are vulnerable.  They need to be future-oriented.  They need to be able to predict the path ahead.  However, universities are not in a business of preparing graduates with specific skills. We are in the business of promoting thinking, changing attitudes and perceptions. So, there is this tension.  Young people are doing the best they can, but they are in a situation where the graduates outnumber the good jobs, the jobs that are available don’t offer fulfillment and no matter which path they take, young people are often changing jobs and even fields five, six, seven times before finding any kind of security in the marketplace. You know, everybody has good points, but the system is not working.


Well, everyone has to do something to change. You cannot just have a drop-down kind of design that suddenly creates an ideal world. We know it does not work like this. The employers have to work more closely with the education industry and vice versa. For instance, experiential education has been going on for a long time, but in pockets.  We offer co-op programs, arrange internships, practicums, consulting projects, emphasize co-curricular activities, service learning and interventions in communities – all of these are powerful examples of experiential learning.   We need to change the scale of these activities where much learning occurs, but to do that, we need the support of and integration with the market.  That’s the way we’ll truly revolutionize education on a grand scale.  Now, when you think of innovation – what is a key characteristic of innovation? The essential characteristic is that you iterate and you improve. So you start something, you try it, you prototype it and you invent as you go. This is how these two separate sectors need to evolve.  They need to interplay with each other back and forth. They have to get into each other’s worlds.  It’s part of the iterative process.


Well, students have been preparing under the illusion that they should follow their passions. It sounds very nice, but there’s no guarantee that your passion will line up with a need in the marketplace.  I am not saying you should not be passionate, you need to be passionate, but you need to broaden the passion! It should not just be focused on, “I want to be a musician, and that is what I am going to do with my life.” Most aspiring musicians would starve if that’s all you’re willing to do. I think the idea that parents say to their children at a very young age, that you should “follow your passion” is actually not a very good thing. It usually creates false expectations. It also misleads young people to think that there is a market that values their passion. In most cases, it does not. And then, I think that many people who have done things that they did not like – like joining the military or taking a job out of necessity –  might find great life experiences, build networks, make friends and open doors they didn’t see coming.  You can learn discipline and gain a different perspective.  These are essential skills. There are many ways to move forward, to contribute and to succeed.  It does not always have to happen through a passion.  Sometimes, we get to the best places by being open to learning and by being able to adapt. We are extraordinary at adaptation.


Being born with resources benefit from education. They were not lucky enough to be born into the families that had the resources to learn, to put and keep their children in school. But for most of the people in the world, this is not the case. And yet, educational and knowledge resources are available like never before. If the young people have broad educations, then in the long run, they do better economically. That is what makes universities really special – you have a chance to grow with people. For instance, look at the wonderful results of cross-cultural learning.  Young people are attracted more and more to this kind of engagement with other cultures, with other parts of society. This is what universities can provide and these experiences develop the kind of soft skills that sustain us and are going to be the future for our youth and are important in our economy and will be in demand.  There are opportunities for everybody. From a global perspective, it depends a lot on luck who has access to those opportunities and who doesn’t.  We need to reduce the role that luck plays in access, but as we do, more people will have the chance to develop those skills – those really human, universal skills.

Interviewed by Marge Sassi, Estonian Business School