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Integrating skill development & education

Most successful education systems concentrate on building a hierarchy of skills. Testing and certification available at each level facilitates upgrading and enhancement of the existing set of skills.

Integrating skill development & education

Students during a practical class at a Skill Development Centre in a private university. A Tribune photograph



M. Rajiv Lochan

Getting rid of poverty is about the abilities of people to make use of the economic opportunities available to them. Education is not just about teaching people an arcane subject but equipping them with meta-skills — of language, record keeping, data entry and analysis —  that can be translated into many other skills. For, in a growing economy like India, such opportunities are definitely there: the issue is how to help people use these to increase their incomes. 

Whether it is wage employment or self-employment, improving incomes is about skills that people have. Fortunately, the present government is seized of the matter and its Skill Development Mission could be effectively leveraged to teach students skills that might help them earn a decent livelihood. However, improving incomes is also about providing people risk protection against sudden economic shocks, which might deplete their financial reserves. This requires paying adequate attention to something that has till now not attracted attention of planners: providing affordable and reliable healthcare for all. 

Let us take a common example. These days with the boom in e-retailing, there are literally hundreds of companies on the lookout for delivery boys with basic English language skills who have a two wheeler and a license to drive one. Add to that some skill in working systematically and you have a person who would be in great demand. Problem is: how to tweak the system of education in such a way to provide such basic skills? It cannot be said that the education system as it exists today does not provide such skills. Then why is it that there is a shortage of people even with such skills? 

Another common experience that comes to mind is the enormous scarcity of skilled plumbers, electricians and masons in urban spaces. Mumbai, for instance, continues to attract a large number of plumbers from Orissa because there simply aren't enough local boys who are competent at the job. Any kind of employment seems to depend on the ability of the education system to build skills in the population across age groups. This is also the problem taken up in a big way by the Skill Development Mission. But there are some problems with the Mission.

The first problem is that the size of the present Mission is small when compared to the actual skill requirements of the Indian economy. About 2.5 million vocational training seats are available in India against the 12.8 million people entering the labour market every year. And only 5 per cent of the Indian labour force in the age group 20-24 years has any formal training in vocational education. In comparison, China in 2012, had 12,663 vocational schools with an enrolment of around 21 million students. While 11 per cent of those completing Class IX directly enter the labour market in China, of the remaining who proceed for secondary school, nearly 50 per cent proceed to learn in vocational schools. China also has a mandate to spend 20 per cent of the education budget on vocational education. The difference between China and India then is on a scale of ten is to one. No wonder then that China is called the factory of the world. Part of the problem in India comes from the lack of integration of the skill development programme with the overall education system. Most successful education systems concentrate on building a hierarchy of skills, with some testing and certification available at each level. So in healthcare for instance, you could learn to be a blood-collection expert and later on you should be able to take added courses to train as a full-fledged pathology technician or nurse. Or you could train to be a motor repair mechanic and later you should be able to take courses to train for a diploma in engineering. It is this connection, which is lacking in the Skill Development programme today. Without such integration, large numbers of people who are trained in the Skill Development Mission are forever condemned to remain at the bottom of the pyramid with subsistence-level incomes. In order to facilitate vertical and horizontal mobility in education, the Skill Development programme would need to coordinate with regular educational institutes rather than develop yet another set of stand-alone institutions like the ITIs or Polytechnics.

The other major issue is about the excessive centralisation of vocational education in India. Course curricula are decided either at the Centre or state level by a bunch of subject experts who often have ideological agendas; local training institutes are not allowed to contribute anything. In contrast, in China, while two-thirds of the curriculum in vocational education is standardised, one-third is left to the local vocational school which is expected to decide this curriculum in consultation with local society and its requirements. The result is that in India, courses in government schools in particular, focus heavily on national needs but do not reflect the needs of the local society and industry. Such high level of distrust in the ability of local schools to design curricula would simply have to be abandoned. With so much distrust, local schools also live down to expectations.

All this skill development will quickly come to nought if it is not provided adequate insurance against risk: the risk of being injured, falling ill being some of the most common. The various Pradhan Mantri Bima Yojanas have made a good beginning. Greater oversight is needed over healthcare, particularly for outpatient care.  All data from India shows that it is lack of healthcare which drives several million people into poverty every year. Yet this is the one subject which is rarely discussed in the public discourse on poverty alleviation. In recent years, Centre and state governments have come up with insurance schemes to address the risk attached with sudden hospitalisation. All NSSO data shows that people spend as much and more on OPD care as compared to hospital care. With the tradition of the general practitioner dying out, people are left to the care of hospitals. There being no standards of quality of care in place in India, this means a near-total free for all.  

What is needed is a robust healthcare system which demolishes this artificial barrier between public and private hospitals and lays down medical and financial norms for providing healthcare, for which the medical facility can claim reimbursements subsequently. India is near the bottom of the list when it comes to ranking countries on health coverage for people.

For too long, India and Indian bureaucracy have looked for shortcuts to poverty alleviation. The fact is, no such shortcuts are available. Countries like China and Japan realised this long ago. Providing skills and insurance cover  against risk are the best means to achieve poverty alleviation. 

Providing direct cash inputs or an asset in the hope that the recipient would be able to use it, has had little success in the past and it is high time that such subsidy-oriented schemes were abandoned. For us, the penny still has not dropped.  

The writer is Member of the State Higher Education Council (under RUSA), and Professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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