Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rise and Fall of Vocational Education: An Indian Story

I have written about vocational education and the imperative of fresh thinking in the field. My point is that we may be at an inflection point in the history of work, both in terms of technology and in terms of economics, and one needs to carefully think through the likely path in their own country context to develop an appropriate model of vocational education that works for the people. The current models, rolled out primarily for political reasons, unthinking, badly implemented and out of step with time, usually works for no one other than providers, usually local big businesses, and global publishers, who tend to recycle their obsolete materials into the developing countries. I find it fascinating that governments around the world has now bought this vocational education mantra, but doing it so badly that they are doing more harm than good.

My ideas are partly a reflection of my experience, and I thought of writing about my experience in Indian vocational education in general and in NIIT in particular to put these views in context. I have worked in vocational Education, first in India and then in South and South-East Asia, between the years 1995 and 2012. These engagements took different forms: Initially this was all IT Education for the two big IT Education networks of India, Aptech (1995-1997) and then NIIT (1997-1999, 2001-2004), with a start-up experience in Internet education in between (Netprotraining.com, 1999-2000). Towards the end of this period, where my engagements were mostly outside India, by 2003/4, focus of my work shifted to English Language training, employability and employer engagement with big outsourcing organisations. I had another stint at this between 2007 and 2010, when my work will focus on recruitment, aided by English Language training, and increasingly a focus on other vocational areas, leading finally to a stint in running a college in London which offered Accountancy, IT and Business Training, and which will pivot to Digital Media training and Apprenticeships during my time there. During this time, I did speak and write about vocational training, made friends across the spectrum and in different countries, and taught myself, first in the college I was running (2010-2012) and then in one of the large public colleges in London (Westminster Kingsway, 2012 to present). So, this gives me a view of vocational education from a number of different vantage points, in different countries and through different projects and roles.

This experience, and opportunities to learn from people across the world, reconfirms my view that the governments in developing countries are doing more harm than good in developing vocational skills through their policy intervention. I shall go back to my NIIT experience to illustrate my point. What's worth adding to my brief CV above is that my first vocational education was in NIIT - I learnt Computer Programming and Unix Systems Administration and earned a Diploma, while I studied Economics at the university: It is the Vocational Diploma from NIIT, and not my Economics Masters, that got me my first proper job as a Message Switching System operator back in 1993. I did pay for my diploma - this was because I was convinced about the career prospects in computing - and had my best education experience there. The pedagogy, which demanded that we read the books and prepare for the classes ourselves before turning up, was a revelation in itself. The teachers were immensely helpful (one of them will help me to set up my first start-up, before I graduated, in data processing back in 1991), the computers were mystifying and I also made friends for life. It was such a great experience that I indeed turned an evangelist. This was primarily the reason that I did not stay as a Unix Systems Administrator for long, and rather returned to IT Education through a job in NIIT's main competitor, Aptech, and eventually started working for NIIT in a few years. I was a convert by the strength of my own experience.

And, even when I worked for NIIT - the company will go through a massive, Asia-wide expansion, during this period and will become one of the largest IT Training networks in the world (competing with the global biggies such as IBM Global Services and Oracle Education). At its peak, NIIT will have more than a 1000 outlets in India and over a million students, all of it constructed around a franchise system which I still regard as one of the best I have seen (and I have seen a lot of franchise systems, working, as I did, for different educational franchises over time). NIIT offered an IT Education diploma which it designed itself, in close coordination with about a 1000 employers that took its students. It had the courage not to follow the traditional regulated system, an accreditation scheme ran by Department of Electronics in India at the time, and the integrity to uphold a high standard and offer a great experience to all its students. I shall claim that NIIT's success (and indeed of Aptech and others) created the basis of India's IT Services boom, and indeed, NIIT alumnus, students, ex-employees and former or current franchisees, provided India's current vocational education drive its essential skilled manpower. However, despite its great contribution (documented in some detail to Jams Tooley's The Global Education Industry and Professor Sumantra Ghosal's World Class in India), what happened to NIIT after 2001/2 is somewhat instructive.

Around the new millennium, the Indian government woke up to 'demographic dividend'. The panic in the early 1990s about the growing population (when newspapers wrote menacingly about the population problem and training on birth control was funded by the government) was replaced by a new optimism about India as a demographic powerhouse. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government provided political stability after years of coalition governments and policy dithering, and economic growth was decisive and visible in the cities. In that environment of optimism, the government unleashed a Higher Education revolution, a new liberal approach to Higher Ed by allowing private bodies to get into the field and start colleges and universities. By 2006, this attained a critical momentum, with 10 colleges opening every day on average for the next six years. Now, while the government did not want profit motive in education and kept NIIT and Aptech out of the mix (except some limited efforts of these companies to set up universities through not-for-profit foundations), the moves actually allowed anyone with money to open a college and start offering degrees. These poorly equipped, poorly staffed colleges were no match for the professional standards of education that NIIT offered, but their higher status, offering degrees, could not be matched by these private providers. Soon, NIIT's education revenues were collapsing, its franchisees were leaving and the company itself shifted its attention to its software business and Western markets (Aptech became a shadow of its former self). 

While this story is not discussed by academic researchers - For-Profit Education companies are generally unloved - this is a fascinating example of a poor, developing country building a world-class industry (with NIIT and Aptech's export successes as evidence) and then destroying it themselves. What is more fascinating is India's later scramble for vocational education - as if someone heard an inner voice - and an enormous initiative to reinvent the wheel without attempting to learn from these previous experiences. Indeed, NIIT and Aptech have jumped into the fray and tried to benefit from the government largesse by getting into areas they are not good at, but that adds to the sense of tragedy rather than taking away from it. In my estimate, India had the infrastructure to train millions of people in English and Computer Programming sitting idle by the 2004, and yet it chose to tear through that model and destroy the capacity through privileging unscrupulous tradesmen of all kind to open educational institutions, and later, in a further bout of folly, committed millions of dollars in vocational education without any regard to the previous experiments.

Indeed, NIIT and others had shortcomings and I have written about the impact of stock market listing on NIIT's operating processes elsewhere. But India's folly in unmaking its vocational education capacity and remaking it so badly is a tale that remains to be told. This experience makes me curious about the politics and performance of vocational education - I am seeking to experiment with smart colleges but also getting involved in projects in Africa and elsewhere in vocational education, side by side with my exploration of historical experiences of vocational education in Europe and rest of the developed world. And, indeed, what makes all these even more interesting is the oncoming technologies that will reshape the ideas of vocation within the next decade. and trance that vocational education providers seem to be in both in developing and the developed world. Having seen disruptive changes in my own career - my career in IT education coincided with unleashing of the Internet (this is why I left NIIT in 1999 and started my own business of training people in Internet technologies) - I know one ignores such technologies at one's own peril. This is something I want to scream about from the rooftops, and hence return to the subject again and again on this blog.

1 comment:

Antarman said...

Hi Supriyo. Your blogpost was really insightful. Completely agree with your observations about vocational education spanning across decades. How do you see internet education offered by likes of MIT, Harvard through Edx etc competing with courses offered by of NIIT, APTECH? Do you think such online courses would question existence of institutions like NIIT?

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