A vocational education system built on an iniquitous foundation will only harden class boundaries
Vocational education is the poor cousin of what the urban middle class in this country hopes for its children. This is largely because it is directly linked to the perceived low-status manual work. As it exists today, vocational education perpetuates the iniquitous social hierarchy in the country.
We need a system that treats vocational subjects as an honorable option and offers them as a serious alternative for students, regardless of their class, caste, region or any other marker of socio-economic status. This has to be done on the back of good quality basic education, because all children have the right to it, and it is a foundation without which vocational education can't function. It is also important not to design vocational studies only around the needs of the urban industrial and service sectors.
Perhaps this is too much to hope for. But without this vision, vocational education may not deliver its promise and will not make any real dent on the massive problems of livelihood in our country.
Let us take these issues one by one.
Unless our basic education system becomes effective, the vocational part is not going to be effective. Basic education that lacks quality will only lead to a situation where vocational education will have to deal with students brought up on a diet of rote, far behind age appropriate learning levels. The abilities required as starting points for students for subsequent vocational education to be effective can only come from quality basic education, which fosters all-round cognitive abilities and the development of affective, social, physical and ethical dimensions.
Equity is the other integral dimension of an effective basic education system. Equitable education may not be sufficient for all to have equitable opportunities in life cutting through socio-economic disadvantage. But it is certainly one of the few social mechanisms towards such a society. Vocational education built on iniquitous basic education, combined with its poor cousin status, will only sharpen and harden socio-economic class boundaries.
The design of the vocational system must ensure that students are not forced to choose too early between the vocational and academic (if we can call it that) paths. The other design requirement for the vocational education system is more complex. The system must offer students the possibilities of switching between the vocational and the academic paths all along the way. Offering this flexibility is a definite route to reducing the social burden of any choice, i.e. making all educational choices "honorable".
One way to ensure flexibility is to have a vocational education method that is integrated with the basic education system on one end, and with higher education system on the other; more akin to the Nordic system, than the German-Swiss system. In fact, an integrated system will erase sharp distinctions between "vocational" and "academic" streams.
Let me now bring up what is perhaps the most intractable of issues at the foundation level for vocational education.
What are these vocations that such an education will be for? We know the standard answer: from plumbing, masonry, machinists and electricians to hotel and retail workers, with many more in between.
The list of these vocations arises from our view of what is required in our society, which we currently see as an urbanizing industrializing society with a large service sector. There is some good-intentioned discussion about rural and semi-urban India requiring different vocations, but it stops short of serious action. This is partly because our imagined destination for all of India is to be like Gurgaon. In this collective imagination, rural and semi-urban India don't really need separate attention.
One should be apprehensive about an India imagined in that way. It may neither be desirable nor a feasible destination for our country. But both the apprehensions and desire to "become Gurgaon" are dwarfed by the reality that such an India is non-existent for 80% of Indians and will be so for decades ahead.
For vocational education to be relevant to this India, it must draw from vocations of local realities. These vocations are based on local resources, e.g. agricultural, pastoral, forestry. They have existing formal or informal apprenticeship systems. An effective vocational system will have to build this apprenticeship further and marry it with education, which opens doors to knowledge, skills and technology from diverse sources, which are complementary. Such a system by its very nature will have to be diverse and localized.
A flexible, localized vocational education system, built integrated with effective basic education, sounds too difficult to construct. Given the reality, size and diversity of India, nothing else will work. It sounds difficult to construct as we tend to look at things in a timescale of a few years. We should think of doing this in 20 years, moving steadily in that direction, and we can be sure it will be done. We have succeeded with such impossible sounding projects before: how many of us would have believed 20 years ago that 98% of our villages will have schools within walking distance, as is there today, thanks to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.