Expanding apprenticeship can redefine employability of students

By: |
September 7, 2020 6:20 AM

The government has made comprehensive changes in apprenticeship laws to bring industry to the centre of the programme, with the government bodies only being facilitators. But, over the last five years, fragmented decision-making sabotaged this and, gradually, controls have crept back into the ecosystem through different schemes and guidelines.

Covid-19 has proven an X-ray for our education system, exposing pre-existing fractures that need healing.
By Manish Sabharwal & Sumit Kumar

The 1977 essay, The Moon and the Ghetto, by Yale professor Richard Nelson explored the paradox of why it was easier to land Neil Armstrong on the moon than to solve the shame of poverty. He argued that the Apollo space missions had the advantage of not threatening established interests while the opposite was true for poverty. He also concluded that the biggest obstacle to progress was the partial and faulty conceptualisation of problems and solutions by ‘siloed’ decision-makers; the language of optimisation and specialisation in one domain overrode the language of trade-offs, compromise, and creativity that problem-solving needs. Expanding apprenticeships in India beyond the current 5 lakh is a similar challenge, of vested interests, fragmented decision-making, and weak multi-domain-thinking. We make the case that Indian employers and universities are ready to grow apprenticeship manifold in the country, but this will need regulatory change, flexibility, and boldness.

Covid-19 has proven an X-ray for our education system, exposing pre-existing fractures that need healing. India has 3.74 crore students enrolled in over 51,000 higher education institutions. The Gross Enrolment Ratio has been stagnant at 26% (23% for SC and 17% for ST) for the last three years, with 46% of students attending government colleges, 24% attending government-aided, and 26% attending private colleges. China’s GER is now double that of India. Until the 1990s, India’s university system was recognised as more robust than China’s. But, as recently as 2004, the World Top 500 University Ranking (QS) had one university from India and five from China (they now have 24 and we have 9).

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 target of 50%-GER by 2035 needs a leap in the skill-competencies of students because unemployment and unemployability of graduates are higher than that of other youth. Linking higher education degrees to the learning-by-doing and learning-while-earning of apprenticeships will make higher education more inclusive and demand-driven. Enough students and employers now recognise the value of apprentices; the binding constraint is regulatory change.

India’s poor traditional employer engagement with apprenticeships is reflected in the fact that only 30,000 of them have created 5 lakh apprenticeships (the UK, in comparison, has 2 lakh employers creating 20 lakh). But industry wants change because of people-supply-chain challenges; 50% are challenged in finding talent, 54% are concerned about productivity, 45% are worried about the soaring hiring costs, and 40% fear losing talent to the competition.

Many are considering apprenticeships because they realise these programs have better paybacks than direct hiring; 50% of freshers directly hired at Rs 20,000 per month leave within a year and those that stay take one year to reach productivity benchmarks. But, only 25% of candidates from structured apprenticeships left within a year, and they reached productivity benchmarks in six months. Consequently, an investment of Rs 2.4 lakh in an apprenticeship programme gives a return of Rs 5-5.5 lakh; effectively, higher returns than most capex hurdle rates of 12-15%.

There are many examples of organisations, irrespective of size and sector, that have benefited from apprenticeships.
We are convinced that it is possible to have 10 million apprenticeships in India at a time over the next 10 years (if not earlier), and that, for this fundamental shift to happen, not much needs to be done, other than four regulators (ministry of skill development, the Central Apprenticeship Council, ministry of education, and UGC) rising above their individual turfs.

The government has made comprehensive changes in apprenticeship laws to bring industry to the centre of the programme, with the government bodies only being facilitators. But, over the last five years, fragmented decision-making sabotaged this and, gradually, controls have crept back into the ecosystem through different schemes and guidelines.

But all is not lost; four changes in rules, regulations and guidelines by four regulators can be put into effect in less than six months to get things back on track:

— Apprentices Rules have already introduced the definition of degree-apprenticeship in 2019 by the ministry of skill development & entrepreneurship (MSDE). The rules also need to include ‘university’ in the definition as the entity that will execute this programme and spell out the role it will play in such execution. The university could be made the third party in the apprenticeship contract other than the ‘employer’ and ‘apprentice’, to protect the interest of the students engaged as apprentices. This is possible under Section 8(2) of the Apprentices Act.

— The role of the university and the processes it needs to follow while running apprenticeship-embedded degree courses should flow out of the guidelines issued by the UGC from time to time under section 22(3) of the UGC Act. The brief guidelines circulated by the UGC at present, surprisingly, don’t even mention the MSDE, while the fact is that the MSDE is responsible for implementing apprenticeship in India. Obviously, this needs to be redrafted with a more open mind, after proper (not hurried or insincere) consultation with MSDE, the industry associations, higher education institutions, sectoral skill councils and other stakeholders.

— The UGC Regulations issued under section 26(1), read with section 2(f) of the UGC Act, need to be amended to create space for skills universities.

— While doing this, a parallel set of guidelines that will be applicable to such skill universities need to be framed, which may necessitate changes in the UGC Regulations for Teachers 2018, UGC online regulations 2018, and the IQAC guidelines. Similarly, the UGC Rules regarding fitness of universities will need to be amended to introduce a new category of skill universities, as has been done in case of agricultural universities, technical universities and open universities.

India has long known the importance of vocational education. Mahatma Gandhi used an education conference at Wardha in 1937 to synthesise a framework for massifying experiential learning—Nai Talim—that aimed to overcome the harmful distinctions between learning and teaching, knowledge and work, and teacher and student.

Unfortunately, Nai Talim never took off because skill development was weakly mentioned and acted upon in the 1948 Radhakrishnan Committee report, the 1968 Kothari Committee report and the 1969 National Policy on Education. The NEP 2020 creates a policy window for radical changes to apprenticeship with its focus on flexibility, creativity and employability. If Nai Talim can’t be rolled out now, then when?

Authors are with Teamlease Skill University

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