Bridging industry-academia gap through work placement

The industry-academia gap leads to young engineers not getting jobs

The interview panel of a renowned company is taking interviews for candidates in multiple locations including Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi. Tens of candidates (fresh graduates) vigorously appeared in the interview, but none of them were selected. The interview panel finally decided to avoid hiring fresh graduates and instead gave preference to experienced candidates. This dismal situation is normal for fresh graduates in Pakistan. While some students may find their place in companies, for many this is unexpected and results in disappointment.

The undergraduate curriculum of universities in Pakistan comprises state-of-the-art subjects, focusing on recent technologies and develops the skill set. Moreover, state-of-the-art pedagogical material for assessment is used (at least in theory). Foreign-trained PhD faculty is teaching these courses and above all, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) ensures the curriculum is revised time and again through National Curriculum Revision Committees (NCRCs). On top of it, accreditation bodies such as the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) also play a pivotal role and ensure quality within the programmes offered. They do so by maintaining teacher-student ratio, resource provisioning, and a systematic check and balance system prevailing in undergraduate programmes in universities.

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The question is what’s wrong with the undergraduate curriculum of Pakistani universities? Are these universities intellectually barren? Why can fresh graduates not be appointed by the top-notch companies?

One reason could be the industry-academia gap, and work placement is inevitable to bridge this gap. Work placement is four months training of students in companies or industry, which gives the students confidence and enables them to understand the needs of the industry. Though the trend of work placement is increasing among students during their undergraduate studies (in summer vacations), but there is a dire need to include work placement as an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum.

In the context of Pakistan, there is a need to design undergraduate programmes specifically catering to the needs of industry, and work placement is one such need. This could be realised by an industry-academia liaison committee which investigates the needs of industry and provides input during the curriculum revision. The reputation of Pakistani universities will be sullied if such actions will not take place

When we look at the four years undergraduate curriculum of any engineering university, we can say that undergraduate students normally take 40 courses in the four years engineering programme, that is, roughly five courses each semester. In the starting semesters, fundamental courses are taught, and as students progress towards higher semesters, more specialized courses are taught to them. However, during their course of studies, they don’t get enough understanding of the needs of the industry.

In the final year, students are required to undertake a final year project (FYP) which lasts for two semesters. However, there is no requirement to associate your FYP to any industry. Similarly, students are not required to do any work placement. In fact, work placements are not a part of the curriculum of undergraduate studies. In contrast, if we look at the curriculum of undergraduate studies in developed countries, work placement is mostly mandatory for students.

Much has been written on advantages of work placement, but we highlight a few apparent ones. With work placement, students get some remuneration. This will give confidence to the students that they have started earning even during their undergraduate studies and may help students to achieve financial self-sustainability and autonomy. Additionally, work placement will help them to map what they have learned during their first three years of undergraduate studies to the actual problems faced and how to use their knowledge in a practical scenario.

After returning from work placement, students see the world in a different manner. When taking new courses in thor last semesters, they will take more interest and try to relate what they will learn to the actual problems, that is, the applications of that subject or course to the real-life problems. Students will also be able to make their contacts in the companies or organizations in the industry. This will then help them to secure jobs after finishing their studies.

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This work placement will introduce the students to the real implementation of tools and techniques they learn in industry. This will also enable them to understand about industry and help in developing problem-solving skills. It will also help them to meet deadlines and organize themselves and work as team members. It will enhance their written and communication skills.

From the perspective of industry, it will also benefit from these work placements both in regional socio-economical development and to solve the problems they are facing. More precisely, first, if industry solves the same problem by hiring any individual they may have to pay higher wages than to these work placement students. Second, in some start-ups, it is not feasible to hire at anm early stage dedicated employee to solve the problem they are facing. Thus, this four-month work placement can help them to alleviate such problems quickly and with less cost. Third, work placement will enable industry to train students well in advance so that once they finish their studies; they are ready to start directly on the assigned job.

Finally, work placement will reduce the gap between industry and academia and thus help regional growth and promote local talent. In the context of Pakistan, there is a need to design undergraduate programmes specifically catering to the needs of industry, and work placement is one such need. This could be realised by an industry-academia liaison committee which investigates the needs of industry and provides input during the curriculum revision. The reputation of Pakistani universities will be sullied if such actions will not take place.

Students may take elective courses if they are not interested in pursuing work placement but this should be discouraged. However, in exceptional circumstances, if a student still wants to take electives, then those courses somehow should enable students to get a similar experience of work placement. Such courses may include entrepreneurship, a project, and any other related modules that develop the same skill set in students.

Mubashir Husain Rehmani
The writer teaches Computer Science at Munster Technological University (MTU), Ireland, and tweets @MRehmani

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