Perspectives on Skills Development and Education in India

The newly elected government has prioritized Skills Development by adding it as a ministry coupled with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport. Industry members and I am sure even bureaucrats are at the moment vigorously trying to feed in their recommendations of way forward for the ministry. Other ministers are also looking for ideas and interventions that they can engineer, deploy and claim credit for. Over the past ten years a great deal of work has gone into the skills development and vocational education sector, some of the notable developments have been the launch of the Modular employment scheme (MES), the Udaan and Ajeevika skills scheme, more recently the STAR scheme, the IMC model for improving conditions of the ITIs, the National Skills Development Policy, the formation of National Skills Development Corporation, The PMs National Council on Skill Development, National Skills Development Coordination board, subsequently the National Skills Development Authority, the Sector Skills Councils, The mentorship council, a flurry of internationally funded aid projects, the infamous Skills Gap reports,  Skills Development Initiative, the Kaushal Vikas Yojna, Rural Livelihood and Skills Missions, the NVQF, the NVEQF, the NSQF, etc.

I still remember as I was in employment with a leading vocational education company in year 2004-05, when we had made substantial effort to get the government to mainstream the agenda of skills development and quality of vocational education. At the time it took a great deal of efforts to get people to commit to the agenda, and the very first announcement of a mere 10 Crores being allocated for Skills Development in the then Finance Minister’s (P.Chidambaram) budget was such a thing to celebrate for our efforts.

I also remember when together with a leading industry body in India when we announced the National Skills Development Initiative, how concerned we were of some government department working towards announcing it and taking credit for the idea. A well-wishing industry body leader came up with the idea of advertising the same in leading daily newspapers and sending a copy to each MP in parliament, with the advert page highlighted so as to not let anyone take credit for what we all had worked so hard towards.

But I keep reminding myself of the adage, that you can achieve a great deal if you don’t care who gets the credit. I started working as part of a very small team conceptualizing the Skills Development movement in this country. I still remember the excitement we had trying to pull figures to arrive at narratives that we thought would resonate with people of influence, communicating the importance of focusing on people development and need for high quality vocational education systems. As some the case of skills started resonating as expected people with little understanding but greater ambition and aggression tended to move forward playing to others to get their own agendas ahead.

I remember we were distraught at the way things were moving forward, because there clearly seemed to be lack of understanding coupled with an urgency to make big, bold statements, replacing meaningful objectives tempered with sound planning and measured implementation. Personal ambitions seemed to take over and an opportunity which could have yielded marvelous benefits is now mired in confused chaos in a space where most interventions and structures are being questioned and on the verge of losing credibility, if they haven’t already been shut down.

The opportunists and profiteers have milked the treasury of valuable public money. Even now given my understanding of the space, people approach me asking for advice on how money can be made in the space without getting one’s skin in the game. Some of them even hinting that I ought to have done better by making money for myself when the going was good.

What most of them don’t understand is the pain I endure every time I see people with no priority for improvement in the quality of life, push their own agendas under the garb of social and human development leaving intended beneficiaries in a lurch. People in high seats of power tooting their own horn on misrepresented facts, claiming success for things that actually ought to put our heads to shame. Companies talking about social development agendas in terms of margins and numbers, rather than having qualitative measures of success. Others ticking boxes and fulfilling their deliverables without any necessary correlation to intended impact on final beneficiaries. The most interesting though sad part is they reckon that these are things that are so prevalent that it is something that can be openly discussed without shame or fear and they do so.

I also see young and poor youth in the country put their faith in scheme after scheme only to be let down at the end of it, without any success or real support to speak of. But all is not lost there are still things in the works and structures that can be salvaged, provided there is mindful and well planned steps taken going forward.

I am not sure what the new government does and whom and what they pay heed to, but I truly hope that some lessons have been learnt along the way, of what reality on the ground is and that some people will make some sound decisions regarding the way forward.

I have my ten points of recommendations on skills development and education in India, if anyone is willing to pay attention.

  1. Invest in creating information systems that produce real and authentic data. At the moment all sorts of figures are floating around, particularly guilty are large consulting bodies who produce these with little concern that this would ever have to stand scrutiny. Even though a large number of industry voices dispute these, these are so quickly copied by others that soon the same numbers are being quoted from different sources, which seems to be an erroneous self-validating mechanism. A Labour Market Information System is said to be in the works, but there is little to inspire confidence in it at this stage. Not only should it have been forthcoming much earlier, but even now there is little clarity on how this is being developed.
  2. Create conducive conditions for small entrepreneurs to set-up training and education capacities – this will help as large companies see this business only in terms of numbers and another vertical that allows them to grow. For small entrepreneurs this is usually a matter of passion and survival, both generate immense commitment to the cause. Also for small entrepreneurs these are usually in cohabited locations, whereas for large companies there are relatively more overheads involved in setting up remote capacities.
  3. Take a realistic estimate of how much time and effort it takes to train people to develop meaningful competencies across various contexts and develop norms and guidelines for schemes which align to that. As of now unrealistic expectations seem to be the norm and everyone is using it as an excuse to deliver poor quality and escape accountability; it also thwarts those who want to put in a genuine effort.
  4. Tighten quality norms and create independent quality committees which assess work done by various service providers. It is important to have sufficient diversity in the committees to ensure that the scope for corruption and collusion is minimized. Unquestioned faith on the private sector is as dangerous as unquestioned faith in government monitoring.
  5. Hold employers accountable for providing workers with reasonable work environments and terms and conditions. This includes health, hygiene and safety, remuneration and leave, in-service professional and overall development of workers, conditions that allow workers access to career development avenues to upgrade their professional qualifications, above other things. Create campaigns and drive the agenda of continuing professional development across society.
  6. Support job creation, by encouraging entrepreneurship especially small and micro-entrepreneurs, help spread information about support services that they can avail. Make it easy for them to get support including but not just limited to credit access. Provide a scheme to encourage professionals with high quality work experience to access credit and support services based on the quality of their professional experiences and business plans rather than asset collateral. Expect and have a loss guarantee scheme in place to cover failure. Remember not all failure is bad.
  7. Create a flow of talent in the education system. For doing that invest in development of school and other educational leaders and teachers which are supported by adequate per diems, while overall funds seem huge, high quality providers often find it difficult to deliver quality in low per diems. Provide incentives to people from other professions to move into teaching; at the same time develop career paths and related development opportunities for school leaders, teachers and other education workers to transition to other careers. Recognize that it is as important to bring in talent as much as it is important to let people go out of the system.
  8. Focus on education that develops practical skills as much as there is focus on knowledge acquisition. For this the best thing would be for educational institutes at all levels to engage with the outside world and work in real contexts, rather than in an isolated and cocooned environment. Whether in the form of projects, community work, part-time jobs, commercial assignments, research, etc. get educational institutes to engage with the real world, real society and the market. This should also encourage cross contextual work where students get to experience other cultures and environments.
  9. Focus on multi-disciplinary learning and focus on improving co-scholastic areas including music and arts, physical education and other areas. This not only develops emotional and social competencies, but also has vocational value and inherent personal development benefits.
  10. Bring a focus back on quality, quality drives greater value creation, people pay more for quality and quality therefore creates a virtuous cycle. Create awareness and enablement for quality and bring together people on the table from different contexts and cultures to understand possibilities and get a more balanced view of quality. Let these not be lost in power struggles and bureaucratic, hierarchical decision making. Increase spending on quality education for all and at all levels.

Authored by S Manish Singh

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