Tuesday, April 03, 2007

How soft skills requirement can 'backfire'

I notice this interesting Malaysiakini article yesterday about the UM VC's statement that a company had 'exploited' UM students by requiring them to sell the company's products as part of an entrepreneurship course component that was required for graduation. While I think that teaching soft skills in our universities is still important, this episode shows how having this requirement can 'backfire'.

According to this article, 'The UM soft skills programme was initiated by the Higher Education Ministry with the aim of developing entrepreneurship skills among students.' The company, AmCash, which from the logos, seems to be a subsidiary of AmBank selling various insurance products, not only provided soft skills 'training' to a group of 500 final year students but also forced them to set up and man booths to sell the products of AmCash. 'Most controversial of all, the company would grade the reports to determine whether the students pass or fail the course.'

Thankfully, UM VC Rafiah Salim made the right move but not making the 'selling' part of the course a requirement for a passing grade. Now the students are just required to submit a report based on what they learnt in regards to the 'soft skills' component of the course (as far as I understand).

What can we surmise from this episode?

Firstly, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still think that soft skills are an important component of a soon to be graduate's repertoire of skills. While I agree with Tony's earlier post that it is hard to 'teach' soft skills in a course (especially in a one or two day course), having an undergraduate exposed to at least some of these critical soft skills - presentation, interview skills, entrepreneurship, communication - is better than nothing. Of course, if the university environment was opened up more and students were allowed to articulate different views openly, then perhaps this problem would be less serious.

Secondly, this episode shows the dangers of 'subcontrating'. Although not an exact comparison, I'm reminded by how Asiaworks, a large group awareness training (LGAT) outfit, tried to obtain contracts from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to conduct of the training programs for the National Service program before it was rolled out. Judging from one of the links from their website, it seems that they were successful in at least obtaining a part of the pie of the National Service training program. I know that there might be fans or students of Asiaworks among our readers but I am highly skeptical of the methods employed by them. If you google of blogsearch asiaworks, you'll find an ample number of website criticizing their methods including accusing them of being a cult-like organization. (perhaps a topic for another post) But whenever there are these 'subcontracting' possibilities in a market which is as immature as Malaysia's, you can be sure that there will be less than scrupulous individuals and groups who will come in to exploit the situation.

In most US universities, there are sufficient in house capabilities to have this kind of training (esp. interview and presentation skills) staffed by university staff. Indeed, many of the younger assistant or associate professors (and some of the older full professors) are capable enough in powerpoint and presentation skills to be able to teach these courses on their own. This is very much a product of the environment in the sense that many of these professor have to make presentations to large audiences regularly and have to give tough job talks in front of tough and often unforgiving audiences. I'm guessing that there is no such equivalent environment in most public universities in Malaysia which decreases the pool of in house professors who can do this kind of training. In any case, the US is a mature enough market such that even if one wants to subcontract this assignment out, there is ample legit organizations and individuals out there who are more than capable of providing this kind of training.

I don't have any quick answers or solutions to this problem. Ideally, I think that what Tony said about having a more open environment is a better long term solution. (In US universities, you are encouraged to make your views known, even if they might not be 100% correct) Also, I think it makes sense to develop in house capabilities - does any of the public universities have an equivalent of a Career's Centre? - since this service is required year in and year out. Some of this training could and should be taken up by academic staff (who should be given due credit) who have the capabilities. In the meantime, we should continue to monitor how this 'soft skills' requirement continues to develop!


Tiara said...

I have a friend that lectures in UM. She's been critical about this new "soft skills" requirement - as you said, it's not really something you can teach per se - and apparently the AmBank presentation was nothing more than "how to sell insurance".

Anonymous said...

From http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/11/26/business/india.php
Students at second- and third-tier colleges suffer not because of a dearth of technical ability or intelligence, critics note. Most simply lack the "soft skills" sought by a new generation of employers but still not taught by change-resistant colleges: the ability to speak crisp English with a placeless accent, to design and give PowerPoint presentations, to write in logically ordered paragraphs, to work collegially in teams, to grasp the nuances of leadership.

Anonymous said...

This is just a small part of the whole story. Actually,previous on, a group of science students, majoring in science and technology studiess from science faculty are to sit for a prereequisite course: Pengantar Pentadbiran Perniagaan. And tese students are required to fork out their own money to go to Aznita Management in Rahman Putra from UM campus to learn about AmCash after class for 6 weeks! These students were also required to sell Amcash and later asked to "role play", to be the facilitators to facilitate their seniors during the entrepreneurship programme which is now said to be exploiting students!!