The last article looked at the commoditization of knowledge and information. The third silent shift that is taking place is in education -higher education today has become a commodity. China produces almost 5 million university graduates a year -400,000 of them in engineering. India churns out 350,000 engineering graduates from 2.5 million English-speaking bright minds who graduate from its universities each year. Contrast this with Malaysia’s total of around 320,000 enrolled university students and it becomes obvious that we are dealing with a problem of different proportions altogether.
Access to higher education, either using the traditional classroom method or the latest internet-based learning solution, is no longer an issue. Even the MBA, coveted as recently as only five years ago, has ceased to be a differentiator or a competitive advantage for job seekers in the corporate world. What was yesterday’s edge is today’s entry level qualification.
Driven by distance learning programmes, university education is increasing becoming just an entry point to a job – not a differentiator. Take the University of Phoenix for example. More than 170,000 working professionals have graduated with bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in the areas of IT, engineering, business, heath care and teaching. The university has over 8,000 qualified instructors from across the globe – industry practitioners who bring relevant experience into the virtual classroom. Distance learning is not new – the University of London setup its external programme in 1858 to cater for students who could not physically attend lectures in the university. What is new is using the Internet to deliver the education quickly and easily around the globe.
Working adults or students who do not have the prerequisite qualifications to enter a traditional university can now complete individual modules at home and accumulate credits by taking examinations or by finishing assignments. These credits can then be exchanged for an accredited degree. The College Level Examination Programme (CLEP), recognised by almost every American university, is a convenient and affordable way to earn and collect credits in various disciplines. Some state-approved institutions, such as Excelsior College and Thomas Edison State College, even award full Bachelor degrees based on CLEP credits alone. Earning an undergraduate degree has never been easier. Open Universities from many countries are yet another way to home-based learning that leads to an academic qualification.
The commoditization of education is not restricted to undergraduate education – distance learning MBA courses are just as popular. The Universitas 21 Global initiative for example, backed by international 16 universities from around the world, provides a flexible MBA that students can complete at their own pace. Various other American, British and UK universities have similar programmes for working professionals who cannot afford to abandon their career in pursuit of higher education. How can Malaysia compete when its competitors have equal access to credible education through global on-line universities that offer unrestricted access?
The fourth silent shift of the commodity age is the ease of learning and replicating technical skills -especially in professional fields such as IT, engineering consultancy, medicine, pharmacology, accounting, finance, taxation, law, and journalism. Jobs based on routine skills are no longer safe from being off shored to India or other lower-cost, skilled countries that excel in the English language. We have to accept that routine technical skills are fast becoming commodities.
How can Malaysia rise above the noise to carve its own niche in the commoditization age? It is widely acknowledged that the only long-term sustainable advantage a nation can rely on is innovation. Moving up the value chain to reduce the damaging effects of commoditization requires a country and its people to become innovative.
Although innovation is a popular buzzword today, most people have difficulty defining what innovation is -let alone figuring out how one can become innovative. Almost every speech by political and business leaders has the word “innovation” thrown in for good measure. If Malaysia is to become an innovative nation, we must first understand the fundamentals of innovation so that it can be fostered in schools, universities and the industry. Contrary to popular opinion that innovation is some form of mystical creative inspiration that cannot be taught, there are specific tools, techniques and methods for learning how to innovate. Once these are learnt and practiced, innovation becomes second nature.
Nations that have mastered innovation have tackled the problem at its root – the process of thinking. Innovation requires a different way of thinking and a mind-set that approaches a problem from a different perspective. As Einstein said, the significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created the problems. For Malaysia and Malaysians to survive, the level and depth of thinking must be significantly changed. After all, it would be insane to do the same thing repeatedly and expect to see different results.
Over the coming weeks, this Mental Protein series will explore the thinking skills crucial for innovation. We will examine the core of the thinking process we have adopted over the decades, by default, and why it is no longer capable of lifting us to heights we have to reach in the future. We will also examine in detail, the new thinking methods and tools to be adopted if Malaysians want to avoid being made irrelevant in tomorrow’s world.
Source: Dr. Kamal Jit Singh is the CEO of British Telecom’s Asian Research Centre and specialises in using Innovation as a strategy for increasing competitiveness. He is passionate about changing the way Malaysians think and hopes his articles provoke and challenge conventional wisdom. Brickbats are welcomed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.