College degree not the only option

A vast majority of school students in India did not get above 80 per cent marks. This fact gets lost in the celebrations of the 95+ percenters, who, in spite of scoring so well in their final examinations, still have to search for the right colleges to do their degree or professional courses. There is a shortage of “good” colleges and thus it is inevitable that many of the students will not be able to get admissions to their dream institutions, and will have to make compromises.

We have to realise that for Class XII, a total of 6,27,022 students appeared in the examination conduced by the CBSE and 52,552 students for the exam conducted by the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination.

Out of these almost seven lakh students, many do not get the kind of marks that would gain them admission to colleges that matter, but do they need to go to college at all, must they compete for academic degrees even if their aptitude lies elsewhere?

The World Bank is right when it says: “Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality. Education is equally key to enhance India’s competitiveness in the global economy. Therefore, ensuring access to quality education for all, in particular for the poor and rural population, is central to the economic and social development of India.”

Not all students are suitable for degree education. Once we face this reality, much of the pain and privation that students undergo at the admission stage can be tackled. We must realise that degree colleges are not an end in itself, but rather, ways of finding gainful employment and building careers.

There is a tremendous shortage of skilled persons in India, and in order to meet the demand, there is a crying need for institutions that would impart proper training and thus equip the students with the skill sets that would enable them to get good jobs.

In developed countries, only some of high school graduates get college degrees and a few go to universities for further education. Most of the students make a conscious choice, based on their aptitude and career plans, and take an education path that fulfils their needs and plans.

According to an official US government report, 67 per cent of 1997 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities. This proportion has risen by 5 per cent, after remaining steady from 1992 to 1995 at about 62 per cent.

In the US, college fees are generally high, and parents play only a limited role in financing the education of their children. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that most of the students are “labour force participants”, i.e. they are either working while they are studying or looking for work to help finance their college education.

How many students in India can say that? Most Indian students depend on their parents’ financial assistance as they attend colleges, looking for degrees, and then start looking for work.

In fact, the government has long recognised that all high school graduates do not need to have higher academic education. The concept of vocational education and training, through which students are prepared for jobs, is based on manual or practical activities. Vocational courses are related to a specific trade.

The government has vocational education programmes in place but, according to a World Bank report, “more vocational education is required to adequately prepare youth for current jobs.” For this what is needed is an expansion of vocational education, setting common standards for training and defining goals that ensure learning in fields where there is demand for jobs and ensuring accountability and good use of resources.

Traditional avenues of jobs are closing down and no longer can the public sector be considered a job provider. Also, the number of workers engaged in agriculture has been decreasing, as a result of which many young people from rural areas need to look for jobs in other sectors. The way to the nation’s progress is through maximising the competitive advantage by having a large number of skilled workers.

Recognising the vast need for such workers, the government has been making efforts to steer students towards vocational courses. Lip service has been available in plenty, but a little else. Practically speaking, people want education to get jobs and the courses available to such students must be geared towards the needs of the market. Unfortunately, they are not. Most of the government institutions offer courses that are out of sync with the aspirations of young students and the skill sets needed by the employers.

India has a tremendous advantage demographically because of a large number of young people. But the nation seems ill equipped to provide them with the skills that would enable them to compete in an increasingly globalised economy. In fact, we do not even have proper information about the skill deficit, and only 5 per cent of the labour force has vocational training. In industrialised nations, this figure is 60 per cent to as high as 80 per cent. Even developing countries like Mexico provide vocational training to 28 per cent of their population.

Every year, we export tens of thousands of students to various nations and a vast majority of them undergo courses that offer vocational training. They spend lakhs and the main reason for going abroad is that they hope to get good jobs. Many of these students do the “menial work” which they would refuse to do in India. This is a mindset problem, but it can be addressed if proper infrastructure is provided to the technical training institutes, and the students given the skill sets that would get them good jobs, or allow them to work as entrepreneurs in their own right. While soft skills like knowing the language, tourism-related work and computer training have their own place, we should not forget the vast need for blue-collar workers and skilled technical workers like electricians, plumbers, etc.

The proposal of creating a National Vocational Qualification Framework and increasing the number of vocations to be offered to students to 4,000 is, indeed, ambitious and much needed. It should be translated into reality as soon as possible. As a start, facilities at various institutions that provide vocational education should be upgraded to impart the skills necessary for workers of tomorrow.

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