Gainful Employment, by Design

Article by Zainuddin Manan CEng FIChemE

Zainuddin Manan describes routes to increasing graduates’ employability

AMONG the metrics used to rate universities, I regard graduate employability (“GrE”, graduates being employed or becoming entrepreneurs within a year of graduation) as the bottom-line indicator of a university’s impact.

Graduates of higher education institutions are among white-collar workers who are key drivers of business enterprises, corporations and institutions whose success are instrumental to a nation’s economic health. High white-collar unemployment could threaten industrial and business productivities, and may lead to economic slowdown and recession.

While benchmarking tools such as world ranking are essential to gauge universities’ global standing, they should always be prepared to respond to a student’s question: “will this programme eventually secure me a gratifying job and help me achieve gainful employment?”

At a time when Covid-19 is wreaking havoc and causing widespread unemployment across the world, it has become ever more urgent for universities to rise above the crisis, chart graduates’ journey toward gainful employment (“GfE”), and emphatically address the bottom-line question.

By mainstreaming elements of work-based learning (WBL) that include structured industrial placement, community service learning, entrepreneurship and professional, competency-based courses in academic curriculum, universities can make GfE
accessible not only to fresh highschool leavers but also to working people pursuing higher education.

This article reflects on three distinct phases of my experience in leading initiatives to develop flexible and innovative WBL academic curriculum that synergises undergraduate, postgraduate and professional competency-based programmes to plan a graduate’s journey toward GfE. In phase 1 we started by introducing a WBL chemical engineering undergraduate programme with a specialisation that equipped Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) graduates with a unique competitive edge on top of their standard chemeng degree. In the second phase, we introduced a Master’s degree that combined work-based and competency-based learning to allow graduates to plan their journey towards GfE. Phase 3 introduced Malaysia’s first integrated Bachelor’s-Master’s degree with certification as an express route towards gainful employment.

The article concludes with some of the impacts of our WBL programmes on graduates’ lives, on university, industry, government and society.

Phase 1: streamed undergrad work-based curriculum

Phase 1 began in 2012 (in my role as the founding Dean of UTM’s Faculty of Chemical Engineering) when we designed and introduced a streamed work-based chemeng programme with specialisation pathways. In 2014, the UTM Senate approved the Bachelor of Chemical Engineering curriculum structure with flexible pathways that would allow graduates to choose a pathway along the line of their passion and interest. The key aim was to provide graduates with a unique competitive edge on top of their standard chemeng degree.

Six streams (pathways) were created in line with strategic areas of national and global importance, and to fulfill the needs of the job market. The pathways include:

  • energy management;
  • environmental management;
  • health and safety;
  • bioprocess engineering;
  • materials engineering; and
  • oil and gas.

The curriculum structure was designed flexibly in such a way that pathways could be added or replaced in the future.

Pathways such as energy management, environmental management, and health and safety are key areas under the UTM Campus Sustainability Initiatives (UTM-CSI). The energy management pathway, for example, is driven by the UTM Sustainable Energy management (SEM) living lab initiative that is aimed at championing energy sustainability across the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Across the streamed chemeng curriculum, WBL elements – that involve assignments, community activities, design projects, research projects and practical works – are embedded in courses. Students are advised to undertake projects and practical works in line with their chosen pathways under the guidance of their academic advisors, course instructors and project and industrial training supervisors. Altogether, the practical elements cover up to a third (more than 30%) of the streamed undergrad programme, embedding contemporary challenged-based topics – including elements of Industry 4.0 – to enable students to be involved in real-life problem solving that benefits industry and community.

Students also have the freedom to stay along the broad-based chemical engineering route if they prefer not to pursue any particular specialisation. In such cases, all they need to do is to fulfill the required number of elective courses. They could freely pick and mix elective courses of interest to them across specialisation pathways and not be confined to any particular stream.

Students who fulfil the specialisation requirements will have a note on their transcript certificates stating the degree awarded, with the specialisation. For example, for a chemical engineering graduate who specialised in the energy management pathway, it would state the degree of “Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) with specialisation in Energy Management”.

Phase 2: Master’s degree with energy manager certification

Article by Zainuddin Manan CEng FIChemE

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and International), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia

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