Public-private partnerships can help gig workers pursue higher education

Uber and Arizona State University (ASU) have a partnership programme that allows Uber drivers to take online classes and work towards completing their undergraduate degree.

The cost of tuition and enrolment is borne by a mix of public financial aid and Uber. More than a thousand drivers, couriers, and even eligible family members, have completed their programme since it started in 2018.

To be eligible for the programme, the driver must meet Uber’s criteria for performance and longevity, at least 2,000 trips for the company. The applicant is also required to apply for a US Federal student aid programme prior to applying for the Uber-ASU programme. Uber then pays for the remaining tuition, undergraduate college fees and other mandatory fees not covered by the federal student aid programme.

Drivers can earn credits towards an online degree chosen from nearly 150 undergraduate degree programmes at ASU. For drivers who are interested in improving themselves but not necessarily through an undergraduate degree, they can take online courses in entrepreneurship and English language.

According to the programme website, for drivers looking to grow their entrepreneurial skillset, ASU developed a programme that teaches foundational skills necessary to start, grow, and manage their own businesses.

So, is this a solution to the problem of SPM leavers in Malaysia opting not to pursue further education and going into gig work instead? Maybe not. The issue is complex and young people have different reasons for not pursuing further studies. However, it does provide an option for those who feel they have to postpone or abandon educational pursuits due to financial challenges.

In order to begin, we have to start estimating the economics. How many young and old drivers out there are interested in pursuing higher education? What kind of institutions are able to provide an entire series of online courses leading to an undergraduate degree? The Uber-ASU programme is a type of public-private partnership. What are the costs and incentives on all sides?

Despite the promise of this programme, the reality of gig work cannot be glossed over. A post in the Uber chief executive officer’s LinkedIn profile celebrating the Uber-ASU partnership is littered with comments from drivers unsatisfied with their working conditions. A common point of discontent is the allegedly ever-increasing commission that Uber charges drivers.

If every year a few thousand young people enter the ride-sharing and delivery economy, soon there will be an oversupply of workers. Perhaps we are already there.

When oversupply of labour combines with what is arguably monopsony employer power, pay will almost likely be driven down. For this reason, public-private partnerships to help gig workers better themselves is always worth exploring.

A local news coverage featured two drivers from the Uber-ASU programme graduating with undergraduate degrees. The first man, a first-generation university graduate who appears to be in his 30s, has four children. He graduated with a degree in software engineering. The second man, just short of 60, earned his degree after resuming his studies at ASU after starting and quitting for financial reasons 40 years ago.

More than the certificates, these graduates personify faith and hope in progress and personal dreams. We should explore how we can also help our gig workers, young and old, to achieve their dreams, too.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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