Sunday, March 02, 2014

Vocational Education in Developing Countries

It is fashionable to think that vocational education is something every developing country needs. The economic logic is simple: Since the only model of economic growth we are comfortable with is the Anglo-Saxon model based on consolidation of land holdings, mechanisation of agriculture leading to a significant displacement of rural labour into urban and industrial activities, vocational education is seen as the catalyst that makes such transition possible. It is that secret potion that can take the farm hands into urban technicians and industrial labour, smoothing out the problems of land acquisition of large-scale farming, resource extraction and industrialisation, raising 'productivity' by moving people from low-yield small-holder agriculture to large industries and urban professions, and allowing urbanisation which is supposed to raise the standards of living.

It really does not matter that this model of development is about two hundred years old. Besides, based on the English Industrial Revolution and canonised by later economists, this model represents an ideal version of reality after stripping away some of the inconvenient facets: That this model of industrial revolution may have been standing on the surpluses coming out of the slave trade in America and the drug trade in China, highly profitable revenue sources that may not be available to the newly industrialised nations, are convenient eased out of the model. Also, the rather embarrassing information that the British trade was highly profitable at the time because the terms of trade were often manipulated in favour of the British industries by administrative fiat, allowing them to buy cheap from and sell dear to its colonies, is generally underplayed. Instead, now we have this fairytale version of the industrial revolution to be repeated in the poor countries which must follow the same sequence of land consolidation, urbanisation and industrialisation.

Indeed, the fairytale within the fairytale is that such growth will happen in a humane way rather than the dog-eats-dog life of Industrial Revolution, documented variably by Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew and Frederick Engels: The vocational education mantra is that humane veneer. This is the best the policy-makers could come up with. This will at least make people feel guilty for their own poverty, that they can't still do things even after getting 'trained'. And, indeed, those who get 'trained', do not have, should not have, the finesse to ask questions about what they are getting trained on.

However, one problem with all this: We are out of time. The land consolidation may be happening - that indeed is what goes as growth in most developing countries - but the industrial job growth has not kept pace with the release of agricultural excess labour. In most developing countries, there was a great number of urban unemployed anyway to start with; their ranks have just swelled with the armies of people coming from the villages. But the hope that they will transition into industrial labour force remains unreal, because the factories and businesses today employ a lot less people per unit of output. Further, once the government gives in to the demand of the businesses for more flexible labour laws, another element of the economists' prescription, this is likely to result in an additional crop of periodically unemployed, robbing the others of even the residual hope that they could, with some skills, may end up having a steady middle class life, as seen on TV.

What makes this discussion even more surreal is that the discussions in developed economies about what brings employment and economic growth have changed. The formula of industrial employment is no longer dangled in front of the poor: It is rather the urban self-employment as skilled workers, plumbers, electricians etc., that they are trained up for. But even those are being mechanised - those professions are now highly skilled, professionalised and mostly earn a decent living. While the Western governments channel more and more money into training for these vocations, these are significantly different from what goes on as vocational training in developing countries - in content, in context, in motivation and in outcome.

But this is hardly a discussion policy-makers and politicians in Developing Countries are engaging into: For them, the promise of vocational education is a given, as is the linear path of industrial revolution pioneered in Europe. This over-arching attitude is fanatical: This was the same in Soviet Russia - all they wanted to do is to compress the English Industrial Revolution within a few decades - and we know how well that experiment went. This is indeed a broader discussion than what vocational education does, yet the developing countries must think through how they can really 'develop' and make life better for their people is a discussion that must precede the blind folly of industrialisation and vocational education for jobs that were not.

And, indeed, because the whole vocational education is mostly make-believe, what goes on in the ground is a colossal waste of money and a unending comedy (or should it be called a tragedy) of errors. In India, where spectacular targets of vocational education were announced with much fanfare, most companies assigned to deliver it grossly underperformed, both in terms of number of people trained and the quality of their training. Trainers report existence of ghost learners - those who appear on the book but never turn up to attend training (and are included in the reports on achievement); those who do come are generally uninterested and only come because they are receiving an allowance to attend. One may observe that the learners are often correct: What they are being trained on are often poorly designed and the tutor is often a city guy little informed about their own circumstances. There is no education in this form of vocational education: There is only number chasing and money making, for the providers.

My point indeed is that the whole policy proposition behind vocational education is deeply flawed. First, because the economic model underpinning the talk does not make sense. And, second, expectedly, the 'education' then becomes everything but, and serves no one. It is hardly the panacea for jobs, growth or development in any country in its current form.

So, what's the alternative? I guess the belief that all countries can follow the same prescription is flawed and therefore, there may not be a common solution here. Countries may find their own development trajectories, keeping in mind not just the historical experience but also the contemporary concerns (such as environment), and this may mean evolving their own models of skills and abilities rather than buying frameworks from the developed world. And, if the economic model is based on a democratic consensus and consideration of local realities, a model of skills and education is likely to emerge, alongwith the necessary social 'compact' to deliver that education. In fact, this is not another fairytale, but what happened in China in the last fifty years and Germany in the Nineteenth century, both of which turned out to be quite successful. Indeed, these models come with inconvenient adjustments in the powers of the elite, and therefore, more difficult to practice: However, the current voodoo in Vocational Education will come to pass, leaving the countries poorer and more desolate than they were without these, and one may then start looking for something that may work in practice.

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