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Changing the skill development model

Manish Sabharwal and Rituparna Chakraborty write: Enabling degree apprentices will make the Indian skill system self-healing, enrol 10 million young people, and make India the world's largest apprenticeship system

Written by Manish Sabharwal |
Updated: April 25, 2022 9:05:34 am
Apprentices became an Indian policy priority many years ago — expanding their numbers was the 20th point in the 20-point programme of 1975. But the execution was timid.

One of the authors of the article is Rituparna Chakraborty

Most people won’t buy a plane ticket from Bengaluru to Delhi for 2032 because common sense suggests many things will change, the relationship between things will change, and an airline silly enough to sell tickets so far in advance will probably be dead. Yet, it’s impossible to have a meeting about skill development without a well-meaning soul suggesting commissioning a report predicting where jobs will be in 2032. Nobody can know what jobs will be created in the long run. A poor country with five million people writing software for the world was impossible to predict for India in 1947, 1991 or 2001. But the inability to predict hardly means an inability to prepare. We make the case that enabling degree apprentices — a tripartite contract between an employer, university, and the youth — will make our skill system self-healing, enrol 10 million young people, and make us the world’s largest apprenticeship system.

Framers by Cukier, Mayer-Schonberger, and Vericourt suggests humans think in mental models because these representations of reality allow us to see patterns, make sense of our circumstances, and think about the future. But successful mental models need thinking about causality, counterfactuals and constraints. A policy mental model that replaces this difficult work with certainty is not only inefficient but dangerous. Planning Democracy by Nikhil Menon skillfully sketches the mental model of P C Mahalanobis — our economy as a machine with fixed goals, levers, relationships and players. This model is why it took 72 years for 1.3 billion Indians to cross the GDP of 66 million Britishers. Our labour was handicapped without capital and our capital was handicapped without labour. Our skill mental model must shift from classical physics (simplicity and linearity) to quantum physics (reflexivity and complexity). Degree apprentices are an important pillar of this new mental model. They embrace five design principles:

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Learning while earning: Skill development faces a market failure in financing. Employers are not willing to pay for training or candidates but pay a premium for trained candidates; candidates are not willing to pay for training but for jobs; financiers are unwilling to lend unless a job is guaranteed, and training institutions can’t fill their classrooms. Most young Indians can’t pay for building employability out-of-pocket. The income support of learning while earning is crucial to raising enrollment and making it more inclusive. Degree apprentices attract money — stipends and scholarships payments — from employers because of the high return on investment arising from these graduates having better productivity, lower attrition, and lower time needed to fill open jobs.

Learning by doing: Our skill system has largely been driven by supply — curriculum and faculty — rather than demand. The wage premium in the job market’s fastest-growing part — engineering, sales, customer service, and logistics — is moving from the hard skills of quantity to quality (soft skills) that are not taught but caught. The guaranteed workplace and theory immersion of degree apprenticeships ensures kids develop the current, soft, and theoretical skills required because employers integrate a practical and theoretical curriculum with actual doing.

Learning with flexible delivery: Skills can be learnt in four classrooms: On-the-job (apprenticeships), online, on-campus, and onsite (faculty coming to workplaces). Each of these has very different price points. One of us paid Rs 18,000 per hour for an American business school campus degree while an online degree apprenticeship over five years costs about Rs 20 per hour. Massifying India’s higher education — our goal of 50 per cent GER — requires equal treatment for all classrooms. Institutions offering degree apprenticeships will deliver employability and inclusiveness by combining the four classrooms in varying proportions depending on the needs, abilities, and means of different employers and young job seekers.

Learning with qualification modularity: Gandhiji imagined Nai Talim around holistic and experiential education but the policy caste system between vocational and degree education  grew larger — and stronger — with the Radhakrishnan Report (1948), Kothari Commission (1968 ), and New National Policy on Education (1986). Students mostly can’t use a three-month certificate as an opening balance for a one-year diploma, a two-year advanced diploma, or a three-year degree. NEP 2020 proposes to remove  partitions between schools, skills, and college. Degree apprenticeships offer academic credit for prior skills and for on-the-job learning, and full qualification modularity via multiple on and off-ramps between certificates, diplomas, and degrees.

Learning with signalling value:  IIMs and IITs are good places to be “at” but better places to be “from”. But this signalling has created considerable supply — the world produced more graduates in the last 40 years than in the 800 years prior. Degree holders make up 60 per cent of taxi drivers in Korea, 31 per cent of US large format retail checkout clerks, and 15 per cent of high-end Indian security guards. Traditionally, institutions created signalling value by enforcing tight entry gates (IIMs/IITs) or tight exit gates (chartered accountants). But massifying  higher education — with equality, excellence and employability — needs a different balance of entry and exit gates. Degree apprentices have higher capacity and employability than many pure campus degrees because the tripartite contract is a financing, signalling value and delivery innovation.  Apprentices became Indian policy priority many years ago — expanding their numbers was the 20th point in the 20-point programme of 1975. But the execution was timid. We have  willing employers, universities, and kids but degree apprentice numbers are low because of regulatory cholesterol in tripartite apprenticeship contracts, online university licencing, legislative definitions, NSQF  pathway to degrees, process complexities, quota simplifications, etc. Regulations must change. There are 10 million good — and young — reasons that degree apprentices are an idea whose time has come.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 25, 2022 under the title ‘Reskilling society’. The writers are with TeamLease Services

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