Skill development is a key thrust area for the new government in New Delhi. The workforce in India still has a poor skill profile, and Indian education isn’t aligned to the real world of work. Thus, there is a potential danger of India’s famous demographic dividend turning into a demographic risk. In this context, increased investment to enhance the employability of youth is the most significant policy initiative that both the Union and state governments need to undertake.
The national policy on skill development, finalized in February, identifies 40 ministries or departments directly or indirectly responsible for skill formation. While the ministry of human resource development (HRD) is primarily responsible for education, other ministries target specific youth and adopt a variety of approaches for skill formation. Yet, straitjacketing skill formation by assigning responsibility to a single agency is neither desirable nor feasible. There is a need for coordinating and enlarging several initiatives with better investment and monitoring. For this purpose, the national policy rightly suggests constituting a national council on skill development headed by the Prime Minister, and a national skill development coordination board under the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The bigger concern, however, is making education relevant. Matching the output of the education sector with the needs of the labour market is essential. While the 11th Plan has the right focus on significantly increasing enrolments at all levels to cater to the upswing in demand, policy direction to align education and the labour market is as yet unclear. In the absence of proper structures, the education system continues to churn out unemployable graduates.
There are two patterns or tendencies in structuring education. Some countries, such as those in northern Europe (Germany, for example), have “tracked” systems where vocational institutes develop skills for employment and higher education institutions provide general education for the high-status, high-paying occupations. These systems sharply differentiate and separate vocational education from higher education.
In contrast, the vocational and higher education sectors and institutions merge and overlap considerably in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US. In these countries, institutions are structured into sectors that have different emphases and orientations, but this is within a generalist framework. Students in the generalist systems may defer their choice between vocational and academic routes later than in the tracked systems, often until after schooling. Even after embarking on a vocational or academic route, students in the generalist systems often can transfer readily between routes without a big loss.
Both strategies accommodate diversity but in structurally different ways. In coordinated market economies with a stable labour market, it is possible to match graduates and job vacancies in most cases. However, in liberal market economies with unpredictable labour markets, career success depends on acquiring general skills that can be used in many different firms. Greater mobility between vocational and higher education gives students more flexibility to match their education with employment opportunities as they arise.
This mobility either already exists from the very beginning—as in the US, with community colleges awarding associate degrees, after which students can transfer to a university. Or mobility is introduced by reorganizing education—as in the UK, where polytechnics were given university status.
The labour market in India, with its liberal market economy, is unpredictable. Thus, the country’s binary system—both vocational and educational—fails to serve its skill needs. While the country’s small vocational sector suffers from poor demand due to low prestige and low quality, higher education churns out unemployable graduates.
In India, the vocational and higher education sectors are almost completely segregated. The vocational sector is, in fact, handled by two different ministries. Craftsman training is through the industrial training institutes under the ministry of labour, and the polytechnics, colleges and universities are under the HRD ministry. It is desirable to bring the vocational sector under one ministry for policy coherence and merge it with the higher education sector to form a seamless fabric of education.
While structural changes will take time, to begin with, it’s necessary to minimize the barriers students face while transferring between the two sectors. This could be achieved by establishing a qualifications framework. This framework would relate different types of qualifications from different types of institutions in different domains. Such a trend, to establish such qualifications frameworks, is already gaining internationally. But in India, no serious efforts have been made.
Even in unified systems, an explicit focus on skills is essential. Recognizing this, the UK has renamed its education department as the department for innovation, universities and skills, while Australia has renamed its agency the department of education, employment and workforce relations. In India, this clear focus on skills in education is missing. Horizontal and vertical pathways for mobility are absent. Thus, the country needs a new ministry of education and skills.
Pawan Agarwal is a civil servant and author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future (2009). Views here are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org