A new vision for vocational skills in post-COVID India

By Tara Panjwani

Even prior to the pandemic, India was suffering from its highest unemployment rate in 45 years – 8.5 percent to be exact, as calculated by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) in October 2019. This was partly due to the economic slowdown in the country’s economic growth, and partly due to skills shortages across sectors. The subsequent onslaught of the coronavirus and the nationwide lockdown further exacerbated matters, leaving millions without a job and exposing the cracks in India’s skills ecosystem.

At the same time, and on a more positive note, other sectors have begun moving into the spotlight – digital innovation, healthcare, disaster management, data security, e-commerce and e-learning to name a few and with it, a growing demand for cutting- edge new skills related to these sectors. 

Prior to COVID-19, one often encountered resistance against digital learning – the preferred option being face-to-face courses taught in classrooms. However, all that has now changed as virtual learning, online platforms and home-schooling have rapidly become the new norm. In parallel, another trend that is emerging is a DIY mindset around lifelong learning and an urge to continuously acquire new knowledge and relevant skills for the 21st century workplace. I would argue that there needs to be a similar shift in attitude around the importance of soft skills, of people-centric subjects like humanities and social sciences, as well as vocational and technical training being embedded into HE degrees. 

Thus, this pandemic presents Indian policy makers and leaders with a unique opportunity to carve-out a new normal for a post-COVID world, to really learn from this experience and bring about systemic reforms of the education sector to stimulate economic development and prosperity. Namely, to focus on equipping the country’s population (especially its most vulnerable groups) with the right future skills and education, and direct their efforts to accelerate job creation and encourage entrepreneurship. 

As my colleague Kevin McCole has highlighted in a recent blog, global trade, including in advanced manufacturing supply chains, is increasingly knowledge-intensive. So, if India wants to attract job-creating investments, Indians need to have world-leading tech skills. Generally, there is a significant up-skilling requirement across the country and across all income levels. 

And this means that India needs to urgently ramp up its vocational and technical skills delivery to make it relevant, futureproof and inclusive. 

In my view, there are 5 steps that the Government of India and states should take: 

  1. Further investment by the government in digital infrastructure to ensure accessibility to online education and skills, especially in the more rural parts of the country.
  2. Allow international education providers, including in HE, to deliver their courses online. 
  3. Bridge the disconnect between industry and academia, and incentivise greater industry engagement in the national skills development mission. In the UK for example, many universities collaborate with local large employers, local enterprise partnerships and skills councils to understand the future skills required and build programmes around these. 
  4. Tighter integration between mainstream education and vocational training, which will help remove current negative perceptions around vocational skills.
  5. Increase access to training and education for India’s informal sector which comprises almost 90% of the country’s workforce. Despite their talents, this group misses out on the training opportunities that would allow them to improve their earnings and livelihoods.

So how can the UK help?

The UK has the world’s oldest documented vocational system dating back to the 12th century and its expertise in terms of methodology, assessment practice, and certification is renowned all over the world. 

Accordingly, there is scope for India-UK collaboration, for example:

India could join forces with the UK to develop the following — a customised framework for integration of Higher Education with vocational skills; new apprenticeship standards, including degree apprenticeships, quality assurance and regulatory mechanisms; and digital content and e-learning services to name a few. 

UK government agencies like the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Department for of International Trade (DIT) as well as UKIBC member companies like Pearson and City & Guilds are already working together and in collaboration with local Indian partners and Indian government bodies to share best practices and provide bespoke solutions to bridge the skills gap. 

Only by empowering and educating its people from the bottom-up and equipping them with the right skills – the skills of the future – can India secure a sustainable economic future for itself and emerge stronger, better and more resilient in the years to come.

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