On the Street, off the Shelf: Emerging discontinuities in employment-led education

Narasimham (Nam) Peri, 17 November 2015

Here, the clutter is the key. The visual impact of close to a hundred hoardings literally plastered over the front of the building cannot be missed. I am in this quaint Indian city of Hyderabad, which is also labelled as “Cyberabad”, as part of my doctoral field work. Passers-by in the streets barely throw a second glance at the buildings, possibly with the comfort of proximity. However for several others, this one-square-kilometre-something is a kind of a gilded doorway to an IT (Information Technology) career. What is this something?

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A Google search throws up over three hundred thousand mentions of the institutes in the Ameerpet area of the city, which provide training in and around a host of technologies.

The stark irony of the hoardings is this: the institutes are neither accredited to a university nor are their courses, however the certifications they provide give an “edge” to those who are considering a shift from their “technology” to a new or emerging technology. Whilst this may sound like a low-fidelity approach to a career, it is a reality of the emergent practices of employment. These are partly driven by the almost-daily changing needs of the technology industry. It could be argued that even as the big changes happen in the sophisticated labs of the Silicon Valley, this street on the other side of the globe is putting an equal footing to match the implementation requirements. Courses range from three days to sixty days, cost a fraction of what it would cost to get a year’s worth of tuition in an undergraduate college, and the contents are home-grown with photocopied notes and crisply written user manuals. For good measure all of the sessions are tutorial-led, by part-time faculty who have day time jobs in the IT industry.

So where are the Universities in all this? Literally nowhere. I offer for two reasons: first the courses have neither been seen by an eminent panel or approved by an academic board or accredited by the senates of the any university. Secondly , the speed at which the courses and their content change, is disproportionately high compared to how soon a course or even a module can be prepared at a University; much less the time it takes to get an expert to deliver the courses. It is the second reason that a hiring manager at a multinational firm picked, when I asked him on what makes the model tick? Ameerpet provides the speed and the ‘almost good’ product at minimal investment to both the individual and the organisation. The rest of the ‘good’ is fine-tuned by the organisations themselves. In the neo-liberal world of time and money, the question of recognition is ‘logically discussed’ but ceases to be a show-stopper.

So who sees these boards in the picture? Typically the hundreds of graduates who have aspirations to go into employment related to technology- or those who feel they are underemployed, that is, in the wrong fit even as they hold a job. During my many visits to the locality, I observed people find a board, and then make enquiries at the offices. There are three key messages in the boards: The course, the faculty and the phone number of the office. With these, the GPS for the career seems to be switched on. The names are alluring, esoteric and even loud. The banners would shame a loyal football fan in the world cup. But once the decision for a course is made, the world is, literally on broadband. There are no official numbers of either enrolment or placement. Word of mouth on the street has now slowly crept into discussions in the rarefied corporate discussion rooms.

The classrooms are a walk away from the places where the learners live. For the others, including those who prefer a Coursera-like environment, there are videos streamed from here to the rest of the world. During my visit, I witnessed a 6-student class underway, two of whom were in New Jersey in the United States. It may be too endemic an issue for the IT industry; but two decades ago, so was a Microsoft Application.

Aside from the debate on whether there should be such unfettered expansion of unregulated providers of education, a more fundamental question needs an answer. How did this space come to be? Why did any university not see this emerging need? Policy makers in higher education and employers are aware of this phenomenon but shrug it off as a market necessity. The reality is, a commercial model has occupied the role of an educational institution. And there seem to be no regrets from either side.

Editor’s Note: Narasimham (Nam) Peri is a Doctoral Researcher in the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures, University of Bristol. Nam’s research is in the field of Informal Education and Employability and covers  knowledge production in traditional industries, Work-based and workplace learning, TVET and livelihood alternatives to post-compulsory education.