Since I am still officially on maternity leave, I have somewhat been isolated from the outside world for the last two and a half months. But a few days ago, I started my routine again of listening to news on the radio and I heard—for the thousandth time–a news item, which should no longer be newsworthy by now, about how our local graduates are not equipped with the right skills to face the challenges of working today. Probably yes, probably no; but as a college professor, I can only speak of what I know.
And this is what I know.
Yes, besides the science and technical fields such as medicine and engineering, we college professors do not really teach specific ‘skills’. But like I’ve rambled in front of my students before, do not underestimate the knowledge and other life skills gained in class regardless of a student’s major, whether it be political science or Quran and Sunnah.
The most important skill one learns in university, in my opinion, is the ability to write convincingly. Most people I know does not appreciate the importance of a good writing skill. Writing is not about language proficiency. Instead, writing is related to our thought processes. I always tell my students not to write long winding sentences. It only shows that a person’s mind lacks focus. But if someone can write coherent sentences that result in a coherent paper, it shows that the mind is trained in such a way to think analytically and in a structured manner. If a paper lacks coherence in terms of argument, points made, and conclusion, it shows that a person has not really thought an issue through. If a student has not even ‘thought’ about something, how can he or she be expected to ‘explain’ it well.
Analytical skill has always been touted as what’s missing among our graduates. I say, instead of sending them to do two years internship for them to get lost in the machinery, that time is better spent sharpening their ability to analytically think through a problem and to provide the necessary solution in writing form. A person does not need much to be able to do that besides the skill of thinking. And trust me, even in Industry 4.0, that skill will never be outdated.
Skill numero dos: speaking. Again, the same complaint we hear every year. Our graduates can’t speak to save their lives. Similar to writing, when we talk about ‘speaking’, we don’t mean language proficiency. Although being proficient in English would be helpful as it boosts one’s clarity in speaking, more importantly, the ability to speak in front of an audience is related to the confidence that one gains to speak one’s mind. Where do we learn this? During class discussion. During class presentation. If students cannot even speak up in class, what makes them think they would be able to speak up in a meeting in the real world? To convince their bosses to give their proposal a chance? Brush up on that skill at university first; no where else will one get the opportunity to focus on learning to stand one’s ground, to argue with facts, and to know when to concede defeat.
Which brings me to my next point. Communication skill is also about respecting another’s opinion. In other words, the skill of listening. It is in university that you learn no one has all the right answers, all the time. We college professors argue over the smallest to the biggest points. That is how we evolve as human beings. Where else would you be lumped with people from different walks of life, with nothing to do but to ponder and debate on important issues, if not in university?
Some of my students have also made mention that they would love to have technical-based courses included in their program. In my humble opinion, those courses they mentioned (software-based, mostly) can either be self-taught or requires a weekend or two to learn. But what you get in a traditional class setting is something that cannot be taught in one weekend. I guess there’s a reason this method of passing on knowledge has been ongoing for centuries.
What other skills do they always mention as important? Working in a group. Done. In class, there will always be projects that need more than three people involved.
The point I am making is to stop chastising the university system. There is nothing wrong with putting people through four more years of formal tertiary education. It is never about the facts learned in class (which most of us would forget anyway after graduation), but the development of an important set of skills including patience, perseverance, and dedication. All other technical skills can be obtained later in life. But as young adults, they need to learn to speak their mind, to provide solutions to unique problems, and the ability to think as mature adults.
A university is a place to produce thinkers. It is not a factory line producing employees. Good employees are basically good people who can think on their feet. Let’s focus on producing good people first. The rest will fall into place.