Saturday, March 29, 2014

Developing A model for Adult Vocational Education

After having spent one year on developing a management training proposition, I am at a pivot: My principal focus of my work is developing a system for effective skills learning. In one way, this is an extension of the management training idea that we started with; in another way, this was at the core of our thinking all the time - how to connect learning and practise and make people effective practitioners. However, this may represent a broader change - and perhaps a meaningful one - that this will take us beyond the management training. As I am learning as I go along, management training is less about doing things, despite the idealised conception of it as an enlightened practise, and more about prestige, credentials, rankings etc. The point of it is, as one of my students put it, whether you can 'talk the walk'.

So, my current project is about getting involved in Adult Vocational Education in India, and developing a model that can work. There is lot of talk about vocational education in India - and there is a lot of people who specialise in 'talking the walk' - but very little has actually been happening. My initial survey of the sector throws up appalling examples, a colossal waste of public money, poor execution, straightforward fraud, very little innovation etc. The current conversation that I am into is about raising money to acquire a stake in an existing business, and creating a model for Adult Vocational Education. The model part is important, because there is hardly any apparent model in Indian Vocational Education that is readily investible. For a start, most of these models are very low margin: This may be common in many other sectors in India, but what makes it particularly daunting is because in vocational education, low margin is combined with low demand. There is little effective demand from people wanting to pay to develop a vocational skill: Vocational skills are usually looked down upon by the Middle Classes (who want office work) and those who may benefit by acquiring a vocational skill is neither able to pay nor aware of the need to train. One may argue that this societal change is needed, but businesses hardly engage in changing societal attitudes: That remains firmly in the realm of public investment or charitable activity.

One may wonder why then there is so much business activity in the Adult Vocational Skills Training sector in India. There are a number of reasons. The most obvious one is because there are some operators in India who sees this as an easy money opportunity and they are into doing this by not doing. Keeping these operators aside, there are some other activities in the sector, which mostly concern itself with displacement: Rapid industrialisation of India's hinterland comes with lots of displaced people, and consequent insurgency. It is therefore a business imperative for some of the business houses involved in the land acquisition to create provisions for vocational education for the people they displace, so that these people could be resettled into urban employment and wouldn't be able to return to their villages. Often, CSR projects, as they are called, come with explicit requirements to resettle the 'beneficiaries' outside their home state. Finally, there is also a bit of public money into this: Ministry of Rural Development, and other Ministries, all have a kitty to spend on education, and this forms a large part of the activity in the sector: This is, however, a finite source of money, likely to dry up as the incoming Indian government (after the May 2014 General Election) tries to tackle deficits further.

So, the business model of vocational training in India, if there is one, is based on a temporal opportunity, and usually not related to education at all. It presents therefore two investment problems: First, the requirement for long term investment on something with only short term prospects; and second, an apparent market of asymmetric information, where the intended beneficiaries don't know, don't want or don't care about the intended benefits, ceding the sector, therefore, to sub-optimal offerings and unscrupulous operators.

Indeed, one may question why get involved in this market at all, but I have come to realise that cracking the India opportunity (Education's El Dorado, as I call it, everyone knows there is Gold, but no one knows how to get there) is the principal value proposition of U-Aspire. Developing a business model that works and building a sustainable proposition that works in India may be our surest way to build the global platform that we seek to create through U-Aspire. And, this is, despite the many difficulties I face, not least the difference in expectations and work practises, my principal motivation behind engaging into the exploration of India's vocational education market.

My approach to development of a sustainable business model in the vocational education sector in India rests on segmenting the market into self-financing and support-financing market. I have a clear proposition for the self-financing market, and the first thing I am working upon is to put a model together which may draw upon some of the benefits created by the government enthusiasm about vocational training, such as availability of bank finances. The opportunity here can be further augmented by employing the 'global' range of U-Aspire's programmes, which will hopefully add an element of desirability in the overall proposition, and the competence-based framework we already have. 

However, this still leaves me with the task of developing a model for the support-financing market. This is the big pivot, because U-Aspire's model is currently restricted to self-financing students. The imperative of the acquisition will mean that we have to assume some of the responsibilities of the company that we are trying to acquire, and will involve a commitment, though non-binding, to train a million students over a period of ten years. This will draw my activities squarely in the support-financing market.

Which I don't necessarily see as a distraction, but a necessary part of building a proposition fit for its intended market. The acquisition that we are planning is intended to give us deep capabilities in the Indian market, and 'deep capability' in the market like India means reaching out to grassroots. Anyone can build a small, urban, fancy training proposition in India: The real question is whether this can be built around a sustainable flow of students coming through the system and reaching out deep into Indian heartlands. However, building a support-financing model connected with the self-financing model for business and creative professions means looking closely at new occupational areas, new models and new engagements from the current haphazard engagement models that exist.

So, I am working on a model for grassroots vocational education based on a set of principles: 

One, this proposition will be a community based. So, one of the key aspects of this plan is to set up a movement, unified around a shared purpose (I am fascinated by the Gung Ho movement in Wartime China, which I have written about before). My reading is that often, the learners in vocational education projects in India are not clear why they are doing it, expect for a Per Diem that they get from the government for being there. One needs to communicate better why anyone would be in a vocational skills programme at all.

Two, going hand in hand with establishment of shared purpose, one must also find a better way of recruiting and engaging learners if this is to be successful (the current model is to pay an agent). So, my thinking is to create a mentoring network, recruiting people in the communities to be able to help and mentor others into their search for professions. And, doing so, I wish to take away the financial motive as inherent in an agent network, and replace it with a more broadbased incentive, a regular pay, a pride in the job, recognition of the contribution they would make and regular engagement. 

Third, I am looking to create a vocational learning model which is long term, rather than merely focused on skill building. This is about building communities yet again, and not just delivering some programmes for training. If one looks at the endowments available from the government to train the people, one may be able to afford a decent sustained exposure to new ideas, skills and possibilities: The problem is that the commercial providers driven by maximisation of profits turn this into meaningless exposition of classroom based training, and then blame the learners for disengagement. In the model I am perceiving, joining the learning will be like joining a community, which will come with its own responsibilities and relationships, and the financial model underlying this will not be a transactional one based on immediate realisation of all profits, but building of a longer term income stream to be realised from the enhanced productivity of the trained worker.

Fourth, I am seeking to build a model which is forward-looking, which means this will go beyond just the prescribed skills, and endow the learners with the lifelong learning abilities, technology skills, and 'rhetorical' abilities (so that they talk and walk, not just walk allowing others to do the talking). In my mind, any 'skilling' is meaningless unless it is transformational. The current model of vocational training fails to be long term because it is so opportunistic and only focused on dealing with immediate opportunities; it needs to engage itself with changing lives which will hopefully transform its business model as well as its social proposition. This is one thing I rue about the current Government meddling in vocational training: I believe my early attempts in IT Education (which was all about self-funded students) were driven by the desire to change lives rather than just ticking boxes and claiming funding.

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