Saturday, May 23, 2015

Approaching India - Ending The Skills and Education Divide

In India, Education is not supposed to develop Skills. At least, that is what various policy-makers prescribe, as they use the two terms, Skills and Education, with two very specific meanings. Accordingly, business groups and consulting organisations will have Skills Departments and Education Departments, accepting that these are two different things. 

Seen from outside, this is indeed one of those idiosyncrasies that one has to put up with when dealing with India. But it is not just about some government official, perhaps goaded into it by some clever consultant, coming up with the Skills mantra as distinct from Education. It is also two other things that ail India. First, it reflects, rather than mandates, a deep division between Skills and Education that is already there in the Indian psyche. Doing anything with your hand is indeed considered inferior in India, a legacy of the Caste system which defined a hierarchy of labour. Skills, that is the ability to do something, are not coveted because, in the Indian mind, if you are successful, you make other people do things for you. Second, the Government still mandates how the Indians think about their problems and usually sets the agenda. Any social engagement remains Governments responsibility, and none of the other institutions, business etc., and indeed, the individual citizen in person, want to do anything to define the conversation in India.

I shall argue that it is critical for India to get serious about working with hand. I hear the opposite argument - the world is now, with automation, discovering the ancient Indian wisdom of the superiority of intellectual work - but, like the other fallacies that Indian supremacists often gets it backwards, this one is just after the fact justification of a system which has done much harm. The inability to work with hand creates serious problems in Indian labour market, where, as the Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy said, articulation is more important than accomplishment. This mindset, that working with hand is inferior, not just undermine the dignity of labour, but undermine the pride a good worker may take from doing something well and reduce everything to pretenses and discussions about Take-home salaries. The Prime Minister of India may want everyone to Make in India, sounding contemporary and in line with the Maker movement, but in India, no one wants to make anything themselves.

Indeed, the second problem is equally big - that the Government must take care of everything. One illustrative debate was about a Bollywood actor, who, in an infamous case of drink-driving, ran over people sleeping on pavements. Many celebrities came out in his support, arguing that he should not be held guilty, because it is the Governments job to provide people shelters. If people were not sleeping on pavements, they would not be run over, was the argument! Indeed, India has reached the point of Ask not (what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country), but no Indian leader would be courageous enough to mention this.When the Prime Minister, very appropriately, made cleanliness and hygiene one of the key themes of his tenure, he talked about pouring money into Government projects to do it, and not about Individual consciousness and participation.

I am arguing that the Skills-Education divide, both as an age-old hierarchy of labour that ails India and a modern phenomenon of Government defining the language-in-use (and everything else), should be the first thing to discard in the quest for a prosperous, progressive India. What good is education which does not equip the learner with any skills to do anything? And, indeed, what skills are we teaching if the underlying premise is not to free the person from the servitude, assigned by the accident of his birth? As always, my hope rests on those Indian educators and training businesses who will heed this message and close the gap - those universities taking on the competency-based route and those skills training businesses getting serious about transformative learning - and not on pedantic discourses of academic seminars. 
 

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