By Annapurna Sinharay, Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Karl Marx vilified the education system as an instrument in the hands of the evil capitalists to train a pliant labour force. However, the widespread unemployment plaguing the country today has reduced the system to one of a much benign nature, hopefully to Marx’s liking. Among the many reasons behind this unemployment is the growing mismatch between skills (owing to education) and occupations. As India marches towards evolving into a ‘knowledge economy’, it becomes increasingly imperative to focus on imparting skills relevant to the upcoming economic environment. The discrepancy between skills and employment is particularly acute in the inaccessible terrains of the country, specifically the hilly regions. This article dives deep into the problem and explores possible solutions for it.

Education with prospects – the concept of “functional literacy”

The India Labour Report 2007 states that the youth of our country are “simply unemployable”. Absence of quality education and skills, paucity of technical and vocational training and policy errors, make it necessary to carry out a thorough overhaul in our education system. The same reflection is articulated by a study contracted by the TeamLease Services: “Ninety percent of employment opportunities require vocational skills, but 90% of our college and school output has only bookish knowledge”. Given the sorry state of affairs of academia in the mainland states, one can only imagine what the situation is likely to be in the underprivileged hilly regions – lacking in infrastructure and opportunity.

There has been a growing consensus among educators, since at least the last five decades, that  literacy is not an end in itself and that it needs to serve some purpose and prove beneficial to its users. RS Mooshahary, State Chief Information Commissioner of Assam, agrees, that of the many objects of education, the one that aims at furnishing students with the skills of self-reliance is perhaps the most important. “Without it”, he says, “education is devoid of direction and not worth pursuing”. The curriculum should be designed in a way so as to facilitate assimilating new skills alongside imbibing moral values and ethics.

Thus, the question arises, can effectual training in livelihood skills be included as a component to large scale literacy programs? In a study conducted by the World Bank Group, across Bangladesh and West Africa, it was observed that programs that are centred around livelihood skills seem to stand a stronger chance of success as they can demonstrate an immediate reason for learning. Organizations that are more concerned with livelihoods and other aspects of development seem to be better at designing and delivering effective combinations of livelihoods and literacy than organizations that are more focused on education.

Problems peculiar to the hills

While India has made commendable headway in improving enrolment rates for primary education, it has been less successful in averting dropouts. According to a 2011 study by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration , these ‘dropouts’ are most likely to be engaged in semi-skilled and unskilled employment. They leave school because they see no hope of employment by means of traditional pedagogy. When a family is not financially secure, prioritising a child’s education takes the backseat. Such families then drive their children towards child labour, which is seen to be a more profitable venture. However, poverty is not the only reason for the high dropout rate in the hills – inaccessibility and unavailability are also equally responsible for the same. These factors aside, the difficult terrain, rural panorama and low employment opportunities do not attract highly qualified educators. As a result of poor instructors, students leave school out of disinterest or skip class because they find agricultural vocations to be of more worthwhile pursuit.

Possible Solutions

American philosopher, John Dewey said, ‘Any education, in its forms and methods, is an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists’. Therefore, the educational methods adopted in a developed European nation would be different from those in an underdeveloped country in Africa. For a nation as diverse as India, one size fits all could be the most disastrous approach to follow, especially when it comes to education. The education policy should be such as to avoid dependence on packages of standard curricula.

Having said so, the first suggestion is that the education policy should evaluate vocational training requirements in particular localities. This would guarantee an environment suited to schooling in particular livelihoods and would result in higher productivity, incomes, and overall well-being. For example, the first viable industry that comes to one’s mind on picturising the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is undeniably the tourism industry. Tourism careers include working in a hotel or resort, on a cruise ship, in an adventure sports centre, as a tour guide leading activities and historical trips, as a travel guide/ writer or as a driver or flight attendant; the possibilities are endless. An ideal education policy should essentially be one that advocates dignity of labour and strategically leverages these varied permutations to provide effective vocational training.

Second, there is a consensus that the content of a course should be the result of a local survey. Simultaneously, existing demand in a given neighbourhood should influence the initiating of training in livelihoods. Opportunities for new vocations and businesses, especially those that would facilitate people to transition into the economic mainstream, would need to be figured out and effectively implemented in the curricula.

Thirdly, to avoid the problem of dropouts and low attendance, literacy programs should make an effort to arrange their class times around their students’ schedule, to minimize inconvenience and opportunity costs. Even after this, if the daily commitments of a student makes a single stretch of time difficult, then the phased or modular approach should be followed. This is because many students, however well intentioned, do miss sessions and attend irregularly. The modular approach would permit such students some room to catch up, while affording the more regular, some more space for practice and reinforcement.

Fourthly, vocational education policy should provide for two sets of instructors: livelihood instructors and literacy instructors. The consensus on teaching methods is that approaches that promote activity and interaction are likely to be most effective. However, this can be difficult to implement in real life with instructors who have themselves had only traditional schooling. Hence, two cadres of educators should be provided.

Lastly, to ensure quality of education and skills imparted, the “market” has to be thrown open to private players. Indeed, this is the only way to diversify vocational education and add value to its content. The State has to come to terms with this role-change.