Balancing theory with practice

Preventing mismatches between academic qualifications and job requirements is crucial to curb the rising trend of unemployment among new graduates across Asia.

As can be observed from how the marks are weighted, many university examinations in Asia still place a lot of emphasis on theoretically oriented responses (although there is now a greater tendency for questions to be looking for more common-sense, practical responses or to be more open-ended), something that is more marked than in Europe or the United States.

As such, it can be assumed that good practical knowledge will not guarantee good grades, given that it will not be reflected in the overall mark.

There is no denying that theoretical knowledge has its merits – it can often lead to a deeper understanding of a concept through seeing it in the context of the greater whole and understanding the reasoning behind it.

But wouldn’t it make sense in today’s technology-driven world for both theoretical and practical know-how to be allowed to complement each other?

While theories are often taught in a vacuum, the practical side of knowledge could lead to a deeper understanding of a concept through the act of putting ideas to the test and gauging the validity of theoretical claims.

Curriculum overhaul

The need to balance theoretical and practical knowledge was acknowledged by the Asian Development Bank as long ago as November 2011 in a report entitled Higher Education across Asia: An overview of issues and strategies.

The report pointed out three sensible observations:
  • • First, as more students complete higher education, the relative advantage of having a university degree decreases.

  • • Second, university curricula and instructional practices have not always kept pace with changing employer demands as countries move towards more market-oriented economies. Employers increasingly favour graduates who possess both up-to-date technical and soft skills for the new workplace (which include analytic thinking, collaboration and individual initiative as well as computer skills and fluency in international languages).

  • • Third, the forces of globalisation have led to more regional labour markets in which graduates of each country now compete with those of other countries for available jobs. One aspect of the changing needs of the workplace is the increasing emphasis on potential employees’ technical skills as evidenced by the value now being assigned to technical and vocational education and training.
Striking a balance

The good news is that various higher education boards in Asia have recognised the importance of deploying teaching staff with relevant industry experience to cascade down job-ready knowledge and skills, thus making their students marketable in the eyes of their potential employers.

Professionally qualified faculty can be an important asset, given they are able to impart relevant learning experiences that reflect current industry practices or are able to link their practical know-how to research and theory.

On this note, established tertiary institutions – both public and private – have made great strides in bringing in industry-employed staff as part-time or guest lecturers. The deployment of professionally qualified faculty should be viewed as an appropriate way to support high-quality academic programmes.

Complementing the deployment of professionally qualified lecturers is the incorporation of real-world examples and case studies into course material.

This will alleviate the tendency of academic staff without industry experience to dish out theoretically based course materials – especially in the context of business, commerce or mass communication courses – as opposed to depicting real-life scenarios that might be useful to their students in the future.

Another brilliant strategy is to make internship or on-the-job training a compulsory part of the syllabus across all courses. Job placement has proven to be advantageous to graduate job-seekers as more employers are treating it as partial work experience that gives candidates a good insight or exposure into work life challenges.

The Good Universities Guide, which claims to be Australia’s largest course comparison website, has identified five benefits of completing an internship:
  • • You can make industry contacts;

  • • They look good on your résumé;

  • • You can convert your academic knowledge into industry skills;

  • • The experience will narrow down your list of potential careers, and

  • • You can gain an unforgettable life experience.
Engineering and architectural schools have succeeded in infusing practical knowledge through compulsory work experience during semester breaks, providing a test-bed for students to implement their theoretical knowledge.

Likewise, faculty members in engineering or architectural schools have the opportunity to be accredited by the various professional engineering boards. This will further ensure that they are constantly in touch with the latest developments or technology changes related to their fields.

The end result is having a pool of academicians with relevant real-world experience who can impart practical experience to students during classroom teaching.

In all fairness, the benefits of striking a balance between theoretical and practical knowledge are endless. Blending theoretical and practical wisdom should be seen as producing bookworms who possesses adequate industrial exposure in addition to being street smart.

After all, there is no denying that many of those from the school of hard knocks have made great strides in their fields.

Dr Kriengsak Chareonwongsak is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University in the United States and president of the Bangkok-based Institute of Future Studies for Development.