Friday, June 26, 2009

Note on Vocational Education in India

When I picked up my phone this morning, I noticed I missed a call from a colleague of mine in Hyderabad. The call was oddly timed indeed - very early in the morning - and signified a sense of emergency. This was not one of those done by mistake for not being sensitive to time differences: I speak to this colleague almost on a daily basis, and he will know exactly what time is it. So, it must have been indeed an emergency. And, as I set myself to return the call, I had to glance over the day's news - just in case the office is not on fire and the whole computer system did not break down - and instantly knew what it was. Michael Jackson! I knew my colleague was a huge fan - and remained loyal through the years - and his untimely death, which saddened me as well, must have triggered his early morning condolence call.

But, to my eye-popping surprise, the excitement was about Indian education sector, and not about Michael Jackson at all [and there was no fire]. Indian education has long been one of the most boring subjects to talk about, but suddenly, in barely a month after the new Minister has taken over, there are debates, new initiatives and noise in Indian education. And, there are exciting ideas being floated - abolition of tests at 10th grade, proposal to abolish various agencies governing education and consolidating the administration in one over-arching regulator, and liberalization of education sector as a whole and to make it more exciting and inviting for responsible corporate investment.

But the excitement this morning was about Pearson Education's decision to invest in the Indian vocational education. They have announced plans to invest $30 million in a 50:50 Joint Venture with Educomp, a group known for its efforts to modernise school education in India, to enter into vocational education in India. Obviously, this will make it to morning news, and look like a huge endorsement to Kapil Sibal's already troubled reform plans. It can indeed work both way: this show of confidence in the business potential of Indian Education in the light of reforms will help project Mr. Sibal's cause, and will further advance the argument of various offended parties - mostly vested interests who profited from the corruption of India's education system - that the government is inclined to build an elitist system of education.

One moment on that argument: The standard argument against any reformist attempts in Indian education was that we can not afford an elitist system. But, indeed, that's exactly what it is - an elitist system now - and efforts and reforms are needed to extend access. Education, given India's diverse nature, is a concurrent subject - where the constituent states have a say, and this is going to be biggest roadblock of any attempt to change things. But, then, this time, a courageous start has been made and I feel optimistic that some day, we shall be able to change our antiquated, out of step education system to meet the requirements of a modern economy.

Pearson's investment in India - and to infuse some reality, deals of this size must have been in the works for a while and did not spring up at the wake of our new ministerial announcements - will bring to focus the vocational education system, which is going to be the mainstay of this reform. Whatever we do about Indian education, it must start with the very Indian fetish of the degree - the useless BA, B COM, BBA, B Es Indian graduates spend their best years doing - and the world view based on a lifetime desk job. This is the centre-piece of the elitism as well, a degree is middle class and the lack of one is not. This has to change. We don't need a BA in English doing our electrical work at home; we need a trained electrician, who does not waste three years in the pursuit of a degree, but rather gets to learn his trade well and ends up making the most of the unfolding economic opportunity.

It is not that we don't have a vocational education infrastructure already. But it's not feted - and our disregard for physical work as a culture has a lot to do with it. But then, we also have successful examples of educational efforts to break the barrier - navodaya schools which taught the students various life skills including handy jobs - and we must go whole-hearted to set the age-old preconceptions away and teach our children how to fix a broken door. I know the logic why we don't - there is always a person who will do it for us for nothing - but then, in another generation, this work will cost as the person who did it for nothing today would surely want to do something better, more rewarding, and as a progressive, democratic society, that opportunity must be created.

Besides this, of course, our vocational education infrastructure is terrible, with unimaginative leadership and without any plans. My house in Howrah is situated next to a huge ITI, government owned Industrial Training Institute, which was to drive the vocational training agenda. The problem is that most of the infrastructure is unkempt, without maintenance and run without imagination. I am sure a private organization taking over this dinosaur and turning it into a dynamic institution will be a possibility worth pursuing, especially if some of Pearson's glamour rubs off on such ventures.

Of course, Pearson's investment will focus the attention on India's education sector at another level - among the venture capitalists and investors around the world. Pearson is a huge name and there will be a number of people trying to follow their lead. Obviously, mistakes will be made. There will be go-it-alone suicidal ventures, which will run into ground because of the lack of understanding of the Indian market. There will be never-taken-off joint ventures with Indian partners who were in it for money alone. And, there will be chickened-out-never-there ventures which will try too little too slowly, misjudging the scale of the market and the brutal competition that will invariably come. But, then, there will be some which will still make it - one that understand the scope and rise up to it.

For next few months, I got to get up early and keep an eye on my phone.

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