Saturday, March 22, 2014

Politics of Vocational Education

Vocational Education is in deep trouble. Despite its new-found charm - it is often flaunted as the panacea for development problems - all its existing model is out of date. All the money being poured into it, and quite a bit of money is being poured into it globally, is going down the drain. And, this is not just an implementation problem: There is a deep idea problem here.

Vocational Education is currently perceived to be a canon fodder for a non-existent canon. The received wisdom is that all the developing countries of the world would go through the stages of industrial development that the developed world has gone through. And, therefore, they need to build up a skilled workforce, using the lessons learned in these industrial countries. They are lucky, they don't have to go through the trial-and-error, the social upheavals, that the developed nations had to go through: They just have to pay up to buy the ready standards and intellectual properties from these developed nations.

It is a simple prescription, fully packaged along with the loans and funds to buy such standards and eager delegations pouring over from both sides and downing adequate amount of Champagne to seal deals. But this model only buys indebtedness and if anything, produces more social strife, not less. This is because the stages of industrial development that we may be preparing for may never actually happen.

Sometimes one gets the eery feeling that politicians never read their own speeches. Because, it is they who try to lecture people, who care to listen, about how we are living in the midst of a profound change and how all the models we knew henceforth are going to be obsolete. They create beautiful rhetoric - change has changed - and plan ambitious projects. And, despite such deep wisdom, they believe the future will be an extension of the past and what worked so far is the best model for what needs to happen next.

But it is the disruptive vision of change which indeed looks more plausible when one looks at the tipping point of technology and economics that are playing out in the modern workplace. It is not one or the other of those things, but the convergence of all the trends that clarify a shape of the future, which is indeed not pleasant for most of the human beings. There may be an instinctive denial of the sci-fi type age of the machines scenario, but at certain parts of the world, say California, it looks more plausible than it does elsewhere. Combine that with the ruthless economics of the banking types based in New York or London, the rise of socially disconnected business (this is not about social media, but what we used to know as society) where profits trump everything else and every grain of efficiency must be sought and exploited, one knows that we are not just looking at a different kind of workers but a whole new path of economic development itself. And, indeed, all those developing countries in love with the industrial revolution, they are comatose in the middle of a Rip Van Winkle sleep.

So, this model of entry level skills training, for those who can't think, is all but obsolete. It is a political weapon, alright - it makes people feel responsible for their own failure - but it does nothing to alter a country's attitude or course of its economic development. True, most of the governments in these countries are no longer governments but clearinghouse of investor interests, and therefore, they don't care much to disenfranchise most of the country's populace and about denying them a fair chance in life. However, the tipping point of technology and economics may not just bring forth an exclusion of just the poorer classes of population of these developing countries, but of the whole countries themselves: It may indeed shut out the national elite of these countries from the cozy comfort of being called to Davos they have gotten used to. Once the tipping point is reached, they will be relegated to the dustbin of history (or the claustrophobic embraces of a dying earth, if it comes to that) just as their fellow countrymen. Globalisation of privileges may make them feel, at this very moment, a worldwide solidarity of moneyed people, but dog-eats-dog usually starts in poshest clubs.

Each nation unto itself, I am saying: The nation state isn't passe and the scramble for skills have started. If one needs to learn from the lessons of industrial Britain or Germany, one needs to look beyond the stages of history and understand the spirit of national envy and competition, which in turn created a solidarity and compromise with national labour movements and created a common platform for skills training. The new nations don't need the same skills, but they may need the national solidarity and the spirit of innovation (rather than copying the model) to shape their own paths. This means a new vocational education - one leaned towards the economies of the future rather than that of the past, one designed to enable the workers with enterprise, innovation, flexibility rather than defined by the mantra of worldwide industrial hierarchy - wedded to a defined national industrial strategy. The time for national Ministries of Talent has come, and new national coalitions are now overdue: Vocational Education is an essential ingredient in this new national order. It is needed, but for a different reason and in a different shape than we talk about it today.

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