Vocational education: Back in the spotlight

Updated: Aug 25 2014, 07:33am hrs
Modern management thinker and celebrated author Stephen Covey professes that one must begin with the end in mind. I think this has no better applicability than in the field of education. What is the purpose of education, after all Is it just to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge or is it to gain not only knowledge but also acquire a set of skills and competencies that can help one advance in life, pursue a career of choice and earn a decent livelihood, at the very least.

The debate over vocational versus academic education has been going on across the world and, mind you, this is not restricted to developing economies. A recent higher education event in the US concluded with wide-scale agreement amongst academia that students graduating from the US education system are not fit for the world of work. So, the debate is no more a debate, it is a challenge. How to vocationalise mainstream education Learned professors and teachers call it the hands-on education versus minds-on education.

The first issue to address is the positioning of vocational education; whether it is in developed countries such as the UK, the US or Sweden or in developing ones such as India, vocational education is usually considered as the poor cousin of academic education.

In the second decade of the 21st century, with enormous convergence happening in the world of education, there is greater need to shed this baggage of the past and look at vocational education and training in a new light. Hands-on learning is becoming more accepted. The new generation of tech-savvy young adults are ready to learn new skills and step into new professions that demand practical skills and rely more on hands-on experience. It seems like there is an Arab Spring happening in education, with the young job-seekers demanding better vocational education which can directly lead them to jobs.

According to OECD Reports and Reviews on Vocational Education and Training, different countries have explored ways and means of adding value to vocational education. Sweden, for example, has forged partnership between training providers and employers. This provides security and stability to the young trainees who get the benefit of one year or two year-long internship or partnership with employers. Sweden, of course, is a highly developed economy with a smaller population but countries like Tunisia, in North Africa, have been fairly successful too in developing this linkage with industry majors. Quite clearly, it shows that where there is stakeholder will, solutions are bound to emerge. In China, for example, there is greater emphasis on institutional leadership, with teachers (or the vocational educators) themselves getting interned with industry leaders.

In India, too, the ministry of HRD has been actively engaged in promoting vocational education and skill development at different levels. In its Annual Report of 2012-13 (on page 64), it reveals that 23.02 lakh students have enrolled for PG diploma courses; while 30.14 lakh students enrolled in AICTE-approved technical programmes. These figures can be contrasted with the 203.27 lakh students who enrolled in the universities and colleges for the academic education we spoke about earlier. Setting up of new polytechnics and strengthening existing polytechnics has been on the governmental agenda for long. In the over 287 districts of the country, state and UT governments have set up polytechnics to provide stepping stones for the young adults find gainful employment.

These are worthy developments happening in our country, but we still have a long way to go. Vocational education needs healthy public-private partnership which can add quality and value at every stage of the syllabi roll-out. Moreover, young students also need a healthy dose of confidence and self-esteem as they step out into a more demanding labour market. State and national board curricula must be modified to formally account for vocational subjects that inculcate doing in addition to knowing.

There are several national schemes for apprenticeship and training already in existence which can be revisited and overhauled in the light of best practices being adopted in developed and developing countries. These can prove to be game-changers as India strives to become a more industrialised economy, with a greater thrust on vocational education and training.

Sanjay Shivnani

The author is business head & vice-president, Vocational, Pearson India