Wednesday, June 10, 2009

College degree not the only option

For Class XII, a total of 6,27,022 students appeared in the examination conducted by the CBSE and 52,552 students for the exam conducted by the ICSCE.

Out of these almost seven lakh students, a vast majority does not get above 80 per cent marks -- a fact that often gets lost in the celebrations on 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 students will not get admission to their dream institutions, and will have to make compromises.

Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality. Education is 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 realize that degree college is not an end in itself, but rather, a way for finding gainful employment and building careers.

There is 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 skills that would enable them to get good jobs.

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

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 students are labor force participants, i.e. they either work while they are studying or looking for work to help finance their college education.

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

In fact, the government has long recognized that all high school graduates don't need to have higher academic education. The concept of vocational education and training, through which students are trained for jobs, is based on manual or practical activities. Vocational courses are related to specific trades.

The government has vocational educational programs in place but, 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. The way to the nation's progress is through maximizing the competitive advantage by having a large number of skilled workers.

India has a tremendous advantage demographically because of a large number of young people. But the nation seems ill equipped to provide them with skills that would enable them to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. In fact, we do not even have proper information about the skill deficit.

In India’s organized sector, the employment is estimated at 26.44 million as against 432.00 million of unorganized sector based on 2004-05 government figures. The percentage of youth enrolled for higher education while in South Korea is 80% and Germany and Japan 40% each, in India it is just 8%. Secondary school enrollment in India is just 35% against 100% of Germany, Japan and South Korea, adds the ASSOCHAM findings.

The findings incorporated in a Paper on `Education Linkages to Transform India’ also says that India’s exports are at meager US$ 125 billion in 2006-07 against US$ 1133 in Germany, US$ 590 of Japan and US$ 332 in case of South Korea.

The Chamber Paper highlights that vocational education and training barely exists in India. While China has over 5 lakh vocational schools, India has less than 3000 such institutions. Higher and technical education is utterly controlled from the center in India as a result of which shortages of seats and opportunities of high quality education is missing in India.

About 99% of all entrance examination participants in the IITs, IIMs are rejected due to capacity constraints. The rejected top 40% get admission anywhere in the world. Over 1,50,000 students every year go overseas for university education which costs India a foreign exchange outflow of US$ 10 billion per annum. This amount is sufficient to build many IIMs and IITs.

Many of these students do "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 students given the skills that would get them good jobs, or allow them to work as entrepreneurs in their own right. While soft skill 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.

The proposal of crating 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 tomorrow's workers.