Inclusive Skill Development and Employability in India

with inputs from Vishaal Bhatnagar, Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, CMR

These days I see news channel tickers running, reporting perhaps with some pride that in some of the colleges in Delhi, the cut off for admission to undergraduate programmes is 100%.  So students who have obtained a ‘perfect 10’ or 100% in their Class XII (High School) board examinations will get admission to these colleges.  Extrapolating this trend it seems logical that all the available seats in these colleges will get taken up by students with a ‘minimum’ score of 80% or more. So, what will happen to the rest? Some of them can afford to go to private colleges after paying a hefty admission fees and ‘donations’ (by whatever name, and under whatever guise college managements may try to veil them).

What is worrisome here is that there will still remain a large chunk of students who have passed the Class XII examination but will not get admission in a colleges of their choice or good colleges, which could lay the foundation of quality and industry relevant skills for them. These students usually secure scores of less than 70% but for all technical and practical reasons have passed their High School examinations.  So what about their future?  How can they ensure that the stain of past poor performance in their school education for one or the other reason does not continue to linger and impact their future academic prospects as well? Perhaps they have no good way of doing so in the current system of education in our country.

To be fair, I have also observed movement in the government space in the last few years, be it at the central or state levels, with the focus being on improving the quality of education and investments by way of grants or sanction of additional resources to increase the capacities of various centres of excellence in the country. This is particularly true of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other select institutions and will enable more students to benefit. But, again the issue here is that only the ‘creamy layer’ will mainly benefit from such limited initiatives, as India is a very large country of over 1.2 billion people.

This can have direct repercussions on our productivity. While we may have great leaders in the spheres of business, politics, technology and economics, who are themselves the products of these centres of excellence but wherefrom will they get a team. The team always comes from Tier II and Tier III colleges and institutions of higher learning. The same story repeats here and it is only the ‘creamy layer’ amongst those who pass out of such state or sub-regional institutions who manage to secure a decent career and quality livelihood.  The chances of employment in a professional setting for a vast majority of the remaining students are bleak.

Recently, I was invited to some workshops and conferences on the theme of skill development and have seen one common theme being discussed by most of the attendees – Employability. Most attendees, many of them business leaders in their own right, opine that although the graduates produced by our universities and colleges are academically qualified and hold a degree but they are not employable due to lack of industry relevant skills, which only a few ‘blessed ones’ are able to possess, not because of their higher percentages but because of the exposure and pedagogy they receive at the top layer educational institutions in the country, the entry to which is highly skewed in favour of the High School scoring system.

So, do we have a system that encourages inclusivity in the space of higher education? Does our system give equal opportunity to all? I fully understand that all the students cannot get equal level of education and skills and then play leadership roles in their professions. All the layers of the organisational hierarchy or the business ecosystem need to be adequately filled. So there will always remain a level of distinction and differentiation amongst students from different backgrounds and interests. But, if the right skill sets and professional aptitude are inculcated at least what we can avoid is the frustration very often faced by industry and business leaders. If they don’t get the right team to support them, whatever a leader aspires to is underachieved or sometimes not achieved at all. Further, since every industry / business cannot afford to hire graduates from premier institutions like the IIMs and IITs across all organizational levels, the need to bridge this resource ‘skill-gap’ becomes even more relevant and acute. While as a country we stress on the importance of startups and the nation looks for a surge in entrepreneurship to drive the economy and employment numbers, it is extremely important to have an adequate supply of skilled workers and professionals to drive this growth. Talk to any entrepreneur or a startup owner and you are bound to learn that quality of skilled resources is one of the challenges she / he faces every day. Though the numbers may vary depending on one’s perspective, but this is the business reality today.

We have been focusing on centres of advanced learning where the emphasis is laid on imparting the highest levels of skills and education to be at par with the global practices and standards, but we have always ignored the average students. What about this vast majority? They make up a very large proportion of the youth population and if they are not up-skilled how can we expect to be a business-friendly, progressive nation. Without adequate efforts to adequately train and skill this vast majority of our youth, India’s ‘demographic dividend’ can turn into a ‘demographic nightmare’.

Therefore, the time is ripe that while we focus on increasing the capacities of institutions of excellence like the IITs and IIMs, we also create ‘institutions of inclusivity’, where the focus should be on imparting adequate skills to increase the employment capability of the average students.  One of the criteria should that as a policy, a cap is placed on the highest percentage a student has secured in the ‘feeder’ examination – Class XII / High School. For instance, if the college / institution aims to impart education in electronics manufacturing systems (EMS) production techniques, let students who secure only up to 70% and who are keen to work in the industry be eligible to apply.

Then, by employing innovative teaching practices the focus should be on skilling these students on two fronts – a) making the fundamentals strong, and b) imparting the required domain knowledge.  Why I feel fundamentals should also be reinforced at this level is because their average marks in the previous public examination are an indication that somewhere the fundamentals have not been addressed adequately. So, it is essential to have an empowering and enabling learning system. I know that teaching fundamentals at this level may be considered a duplication of efforts, because the student is supposed to have learnt these at school to begin with, but in order to prepare a set of professionals who can appreciate domain knowledge and apply their skills to solve business problems, strong fundamentals are an absolute necessity.

So, while the focus of the advanced institutions can be on imparting domain knowledge with advancements in latest technologies and research, the focus of the institutions of inclusivity should be to impart domain knowledge with strong fundamentals. In this manner, we can definitely increase the employability of a large proportion of our average students. Being an average student should not be looked upon as a curse or something to be ashamed of. In a country like India with its vast and diverse culture and problems of availability and accessibility, more often than not, a student scoring ‘average’ grades is a reflection on the inadequacies of the teaching system.

Thus, while the government’s focus is on skill development to increase the employability of our young graduates, there is a need to lay a strong foundation through innovative education and learning systems that will improve the fundamentals of the country’s competitiveness and economic growth. This will make us a fundamentally strong nation with a large pool of skilled scientific, managerial and technical resources that can be an example for many other developing and underdeveloped countries. No technology, machinery or natural resource will make us a superpower unless we have a large pool of empowered and skilled human resources.

India-US Higher Education Dialogue and Community Colleges

At the end of the recently concluded India-US Higher Education Dialogue at New Delhi, M. M. Pallam Raju, Union HRD Minister, Government of India announced on June 25, 2013 that to address the challenge of imparting skills to 500 million youth, India would implement the US concept of community colleges to make sure that the country’s workforce is trained to meet newer challenges. Visualising skill development to be an integral part of the country’s education system, Mr. Raju said that based on the US’ experience of community colleges of over 100 years, India has decided to develop similar institutions. He clarified, however, that India would only borrow the concept and not replicate what is happening in the US, as the socio-economic condition of the two nations are very different. The Community College system is expected to work closely with industry and business to develop skill sets that are required in the local areas.

On the occasion, the US State Department announced eight new institutional partnership projects in the higher education field. Each project will receive an award of approximately US$ 250,000 that can be utilised over a three year period, with the objectives of cultivating educational reform, fostering economic growth, generating shared knowledge to address global challenges, and developing junior faculty at Indian and American institutions of higher learning.

On the occasion, the visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the dialogue on education with Mr. Raju supervised signing of MoUs between the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the American Association of Community Colleges, as well as additional institution-to-institution agreements. In a joint statement issued after Mr. Kerry’s meetings, both governments reiterated their commitment to the Fulbright-Nehru Programme for students and scholar exchange, and praised the colleges and universities selected to receive funding under the second round of the Obama-Singh Knowledge Initiative.

Community Colleges in India: Role of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)

Community Colleges are an alternative system of education that aims to empower individuals through appropriate skill development leading to gainful employment in collaboration with local industry and the community.

A Community College may be defined as an Institution which is “For the Community, By the Community and Of the Community” and entitled to award an Associate Degree (AD) as its highest degree. It offers educational opportunities to all sections of society, particularly the marginalised and the disadvantaged. A community can be locality based, region based, trade based or occupation based and even ICT-enabled service based.

Launched on 4th July 2009 for the first time in India, the IGNOU Community College Scheme allows a community college to get registered for offering academic programmes at the levels of Certificate, Diploma and Associate Degree. IGNOU Community Colleges offer the advantage of tailoring programmes to local needs and state based requirements by using approaches that are most acceptable to workers in the target community.

The Community College system is a dynamic, alternative route to acquire IGNOU certified education which connects the youth of the country with gainful employment.

Rating of Community Colleges: National Vocational Education Qualifications Framework (NVEQF)

NVEQF is a descriptive framework that organises qualifications according to a series of levels of knowledge along with skills. These levels are defined in terms of learning outcomes i.e., the competencies which the learners must possess regardless of whether they were acquired through formal, non-formal or informal education and training. Qualifications are made up of occupational standards for specific areas of learning units. This aims to provide stakeholders such as learners, education and skill training providers and employers to gain information about the broad equivalence of qualifications across specific skill sectors. It is, therefore, a nationally integrated education and competency based skill framework that will provide for multiple pathways both within vocational education and between general and vocational education to link one level of learning to another higher level and enable learners to progress to higher levels from any starting point in the education and / or skill system. The key elements of the NVEQF are to provide:

(a)    National principles for providing Vocational Education (VE) leading to international equivalency;

(b)   Multiple entry and exit between VE, general education and job markets;

(c)    Progression within VE;

(d)   Transfer between VE and general education, and

(e)   Partnership with industry / employers.

The National Vocational Education Qualifications Framework (NVEQF) would be assimilated into the National Skills Qualification Framework, once that framework is notified for the country by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India.

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