The entrenchment and mainstreaming of vocational education reinforces the already-existing social hierarchies. It does this by placing further obstacles in the way of working class/lower caste students who want to pursue general education. This in turn contributes to the reproduction of the problem of their underrepresentation in academia, writes the NotA Collective.
The new National Education Policy (NEP), despite receiving no deliberation in either house of the Indian Parliament, was adopted by the Cabinet on 29 July, 2020. While substantive criticisms have been made of this document and its predecessors,1 less attention has been devoted to the impact of vocational education on the higher education landscape. We will argue in this essay that the entrenchment and mainstreaming of vocational education it mandates reinforces the already-existing social hierarchies. It does this by placing further obstacles in the way of working class/lower caste students who want to pursue general education. This in turn contributes to the reproduction of the problem of their underrepresentation in academia. It is therefore imperative we, as members of academia, mount a coordinated resistance to it.
First, some definitions. Vocational education (or “skill training”) is a course of study that prepares individuals to join the workforce as technicians, tradespeople, or artisans. There is nothing wrong per se with a vocational course of education, and we do not take the position that it is of no value to those who take up such a course of study. Rather, we would like to emphasise a serious shortcoming of vocational education, especially in those circumstances where it is pursued relatively early in life and how this shortcoming is exacerbated when it is imposed upon students at an early stage: it does not allow for a child to fully develop their creative capabilities by exposing them to a variety of subjects — art, science, history, sports, and so on — and instead focuses their energies on the acquisition of skills that can be sold on the labour market. Vocational education is thus demarcated from “proper” education: the former is geared towards employment, while the latter, we might say, is aimed at an enrichment of the soul. More concretely, a general education empowers individuals to engage with a wider range of ideas, and also function in the government offices of an increasingly bureaucratised and centralised society. We will lay down criticisms pertaining to the expansion of vocational education (which comes inevitably) at the cost of decreased expenditure (of money, and political will) on “proper” education.2
Indeed, a prominent reason that vocational training has traditionally been delayed until higher-secondary school was to ensure that a system of public education doesn’t end up reproducing and reinforcing the stratifications of society at large, along the axes of class, caste, and gender. Simply put, if children from marginalised or economically backward communities are overwhelmingly shunted towards “skills training,” even fewer of them will see a path to transcending the limitations imposed on them by a society fractured along these lines. We want an education system that makes the emancipation of peoples a realistic possibility, and not one that makes it a chimeric dream.
Pursuant to this logic, until 2014, vocational training was introduced as an option to students in higher-secondary school, in Class XI, after schooling up to the age of (roughly) sixteen.3 Later, coordinated by the National Skills Qualification Framework and under the banner of the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, an effort was made to begin the exposure to vocational courses earlier in their school life, this time in Class IX. The most recent push to begin vocational education earlier comes with the NEP, which introduces vocational courses as early as Class VI, when the child is (roughly) twelve years old.4 In particular, the policy document envisions (on p. 16) that:
Every student will take a fun course, during Grades 6-8, that gives a survey and hands-on experience of a sampling of important vocational crafts, such as carpentry, electric work, metal work, gardening, pottery making, etc., as decided by States and local communities and as mapped by local skilling needs. All students will participate in a 10-day bagless 5 period sometime during Grades 6-8 where they intern with local vocational experts such as carpenters, gardeners, potters, artists, etc. Similar internship opportunities to learn vocational subjects may be made available to students throughout Grades 6-12, including holiday periods. [Emphasis added]
Setting aside how remarkably innocuous this proposal is made to sound, it is truly difficult to imagine why one would correlate the two unless the hope was that these skilling needs would eventually be met by the youth. Suppose the purpose of this proposal was really to instill respect for labourers and craftsmen as proponents of vocational education often claim; wouldn’t it then suffice to, irrespective of the local skilling needs, teach children the basics of electrical work or carpentry?
So, we are confronted with the question: is there a good reason that children are being exposed to vocational courses of study earlier in their school lives as time goes by?
What Do We Get When We Skill Education?
To understand how and why the entrenchment of vocationalisation at progressively earlier stages in a student’s development is actually an entrenchment of the class structures in society, it will help us to review the excellent analysis by Radhika Saraf in Economic and Political Weekly.6 Since an overwhelming majority (over 90%) of the Indian workforce is employed in the informal sector of the economy7 and is poorly educated,8 it is perhaps unsurprising that the impetus for expanding vocational education was precisely that it hoped to tap into this great reservoir of human potential.9 Saraf summarises the emphasis on vocationalisation quite neatly:
The rationale for skills training is then an attempt to resolve the following paradox; while agriculture and manufacturing sectors have a deteriorating capacity to absorb labour, the lack of quality education as well as inadequate supply of jobs implies that participation in high value-added services for a majority of the population is implausible. Skills training to cater to the specific demands of the informal sector is thus framed as a solution to the problem of employment generation, albeit in informal, low- or zero-value-added services or in unregistered manufacturing activities. It is positioned as a this-or-nothing bait, in the belief that it will be accepted over the hideous insecurity of unemployment.
Saraf then goes on to discuss a number of reasons that the above rationale is faulty. Those relevant for us are: (i) skill training targeted at the informal economy will reproduce inequality, since it will ensure that those trained thusly “remain employed in informal blue-collar work where working conditions are severe, unstable and unequal”; (ii) the budget towards skills training may be better used to fund quality primary and secondary education, which will give students a better chance of eventually securing jobs in the formal economy; (iii) the state’s “complicity in fuelling growth that is fed by an informal economy” will compromise the ability of quality education to serve as a means for social mobility, and rules out any possibility of using education to overcome the barriers of caste and class.
The observation that vocational education ultimately ensures the reproduction of class/caste divides is, of course, not new. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, wrote fertile essays on the problem of the education and development of culture among the working classes as early as 1929–1935.10 With characteristic clarity, he wrote of the inadequacies of vocational training vis a vis the “transcendence of class divisions”. He argued that while they allow the working classes to become skilled, when vocational training substitutes for “proper” education, it effectively places limits on what they can achieve, writing:
The multiplication of types of vocational school thus perpetuate traditional social differences; but since, within these differences, it tends to encourage internal diversification, it gives the impression of being democratic in tendency. The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every “citizen” can “govern” and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed), ensuring for each non-ruler a free training in the skills and general technical preparation necessary to that end. But the type of school which is now developing as the school for the people does not tend even to keep up this illusion. For it is organised ever more fully in such a way as to restrict recruitment to the technically qualified governing stratum, in a social and political context which makes it increasingly difficult for “personal initiative” to acquire such skills and technical-political preparation. Thus we are really going back to a division into juridically fixed and crystallised estates rather than moving towards the transcendence of class divisions. The multiplication of vocational schools which specialise increasingly from the very beginning of the child’s educational career is one of the most notable manifestations of this tendency.
To summarise in simpler terms, the proliferation of vocational schools and the specialised training they offer reinforces the lack of freedom forced upon working class people, by the accidental circumstances of their birth, to choose their line of work; thus negating the liberatory potential of education. This in turn ensures the continuity of class division. And finally, this continuity further ensures that the distinction between the “rulers” and the “non-rulers” will faithfully reflect the division between classes.
Finally, it is clear that the further entrenchment of vocational education at the expense of “proper” schooling will not allow for people to realise their true potential. Gramsci is clear on this point.11 He writes:
A child from the proletariat, even if he is intelligent and in possession of all the abilities needed to become a knowledgeable man, is forced to waste his talent on other pursuits, to become a rebel, or to educate himself; that is to say (apart from some notable exceptions), he is forced to become a half man, a man who has not been able to give all he could have, if he had been completed by and made stronger through the discipline that school offers. Knowledge is a privilege. Schooling is a privilege. And we don’t want it to be that way. All young people should be equal in terms of knowledge.
Impact on Higher Education, and Our Responsibilities
While Gramsci, in the previous excerpt, was concerned chiefly with the emancipation of labour, we might commandeer the same arguments with a slight modification, and bring them to bear on the problem of proportional representation within the academy.
Academia, as we well know, suffers from a fundamental problem. The higher echelons of our community are occupied almost exclusively by upper class, upper caste Hindu men. We scarcely meet representatives of marginalised communities — the working classes, women, Muslims and other religious minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis — at our classrooms, seminars, and conferences. We are inestimably poorer for this lack of diversity — indeed, this is acknowledged routinely, at least within academia’s more progressive quarters.
We don’t often see academics with working class backgrounds because they are filtered out of the stream that runs towards higher education. The intertwined and intersectional nature of class, caste, and gender oppression in India ensures that the same logic applies to caste and gender representation as well. In plain view, whether by design or as a result of neglect and disinterest, the mechanisms of our own construction have bifurcated the stream that leads towards higher educational institutions. Since these problems arise upstream, though, are they really ours to solve?
Academia is constituted out of a deeply unequal society, so it is only to be expected that these inequalities will be reflected in its composition. While we strongly affirm efforts to positively discriminate in favour of those that have swum against the current and made their way to our doors, we must recognise that a solution to the problem of representation cannot come solely from within the academy. The temptation to compartmentalise, to treat this as a problem that originates upstream and as a result is beyond the remit of university educators, but rather is a problem that concerns secondary school educators and policy makers, is very strong, because it is easy. This attitude doesn’t solve problems, however. It merely papers over them. It does not take too long to realise that while these problems arise “elsewhere”, their effects can be felt downstream, in the uneven levels of preparation for higher studies, in the increasingly homogeneous compositions of classrooms, and so on.12 It follows, then, that in order to honestly address these problems, we must shift the conversation from what we can do within the university space, to what we can do in the broader space of both secondary and higher education.
This is not a radical proposition. In fact, it is precisely how we’d go about solving problems in any other part of our lives. For example, while it may be easier to ignore a noisy neighbour by investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, while arguing that since the source of the problem is elsewhere it is not within our ambit. Most of us would, however, consider it perfectly reasonable to head over to our neighbour’s apartment and tell them to turn the music down. A solely compartmentalist approach fails to produce meaningful engagement with upstream effects precisely because it designates them as outside its scope, therefore requiring little coordinated action or redressal. This generates a contradiction: we genuflect to the problems of representation, while simultaneously denying the possibility of doing anything about it since its source is, fundamentally, upstream.13 There is also the temptation, often indulged in, to view academia as “outside” of society. We imagine that this framing absolves us of any responsibility since we believe ourselves to be distinct from and not a part of society where these inequalities are created. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There can be no conception of academia outside of society, and as a result, we have an equal share of responsibility for the inequalities that make access to education uneven.
For us to truly remedy these injustices, and for us to contribute more fruitfully, more faithfully to the development of our arts and sciences, we must acknowledge that our responsibilities lie not only in the development of those minds that find their way to our campuses. Rather, we must agitate — vigorously! — against all policy and legislation that would effectively impede or discourage emancipation through education. The NEP is one such policy, but a rejection of compartmentalist thinking will tell us that there are others.14
If we agree with Gramsci that schooling and knowledge shouldn’t be privileges, then it is imperative that our efforts — the coordinated efforts of members of academia — be directed at ensuring that knowledge and schooling do not remain a privilege, but a basic right guaranteed to all, and not just within spaces of higher education. Further, that these efforts should be accompanied by a broadening of the scope and terrain of resistance, to reflect the recognition that the problems of higher education cannot be solved solely within higher educational institutions. We must therefore rise to the occasion, and mount a coordinated resistance to policies designed to make uneven the playing field of liberation through education.
And where do we look for a model of how things should be? This will require more work, of course, but Gramsci is a good place to start.15
A school which gives children the possibility of educating themselves, of becoming men, of acquiring the general knowledge needed to develop their individual character. A humanistic school then, as the ancients and the most recent men of the Renaissance intended it. A school which doesn’t mortgage the child’s future or constrain his will, his intelligence, his conscience, so as to set him off on the road with a fixed destination. A school of liberty and free initiative and not a school of subjugation, where people are quasi mechanised. Even the children of the proletariat should have the power of choosing from all the possibilities available, all areas should be free to them so they can fulfil their own individual purpose in the best way possible, and consequently in the most productive way possible, not only for themselves but for the rest of the society.
1 There are a number of excellent critiques of the NEP. We list a few representative examples here: Menon, N. (2019, June 26), Draft New Education Policy 2019 – Mass Feedback Campaign: Better Universities, Kafila; Jha, P. and Parvati, P. (2019), A Country in Search of an Education Policy, Economic and Political Weekly, 54 (26-27), 16-19; Ibid. (2020), National Education Policy, 2020: Long on Rhetoric and Short on Substance, Economic and Political Weekly, 55 (34), 14-17; Agarwal, K. (2020, August 7), NEP 2020: Challenges, Criticisms, Way Forward, Indian Policy Collective; Collective, (2020, August 8), National Education Policy 2020: Notes on How to Read a Policy Document, GroundXero; Matthew, N. E. (2020, August 14). A Deeper Look at India’s New Education Policy 2020. JURIST – Student Commentary.
2 See Nawani, D. (2017), Right to Education: Are We on the Right Track?, Economic and Political Weekly, 52 (31), 21-25. The author points out that the Right to Education “was not accompanied by a financial memorandum to ensure the availability of the requisite financial resources for its implementation.” As for the question of political will, see Ramamurthy, S. and Pandiyan, K. (2017), National Policy on Education 2016: A Comparative Critique with NPE 1986, Economic and Political Weekly, 52 (16) 46-53, where the political will is unambiguously found to be neoliberal, citing “the state’s withdrawal, proliferation of the purely private sector or of self-financing programmes, removal of aided college identity, creation of private universities, deregulation of public-funded institutions through policy neglect, the further strengthening of the private educational management, deregulation of checks and balances, market control of universities and paving the way for the entry of foreign finance capital into the sphere of higher education.”
3 Revision of the Scheme of “Vocationalisation of Higher Secondary Education,” F No—10-4/2012-VE (pt), Ministry of Human Resources Development, New Delhi, Government of India.
4 National Education Policy (2020), Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.
5 Can we all take a moment to acknowledge that the problem of schoolbags has become so pervasive that even a government document obliquely refers to it?
6 Saraf, R. (2016), Skill Training or Nipping Potential in the Bud?, Economic and Political Weekly, 51 (18), 16-19. The early parts of this section draw heavily from this very lucidly written article, which we strongly encourage our readers to consult.
7 For statistics pertaining to the persistence of informality in Indian labour, see Mehrotra, S. (2020, January 17), Informal Employment Trends in the Indian Economy: Persistent Informality, but Growing Positive Development, International Labour Organization. In it, he writes that “over 90 per cent of the entire workforce[is] informal (defined as those without any social insurance), and 85 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce [is] informal”.
8 Ibid., pp. 4-5. Mehrotra paints a dreary picture of how educated the Indian workforce is, writing that “146 million (or 30 per cent) of the workforce of 485 million in 2012 are illiterate. An additional 52 per cent (or 253 million) of the labour force are those only with education up to secondary level (class 10). (But 40 per cent of this 52 per cent have less than eight years of education.) An additional 15 million have tertiary level technical education, about half of whom have diploma or certificate level and the other half of this group has graduate level technical education. In other words, barely 3 per cent of the workforce has technical education at tertiary level, and another 7.2 per cent has general academic education at tertiary level. As recently as 2017-18, only 2.4 per cent of the workforce has formally acquired any vocational education or training.”
9 See pg. 7 of Themes and Questions for Policy Consultation on School Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India. The following excerpt is quite telling: “Both vocational education and skill development are known to increase productivity of individuals, profitability of employers and national growth. Vocational education aims to develop skilled manpower through diversified courses to meet the requirement primarily the unorganized sector and to inculcate self employment skills in children through a large number of diversified vocational courses. Given that only 7 to 10 per cent of population is engaged in formal sector of economy, development of vocational education will provide skilled labour force in the informal sector which would further enhance the productivity.”
10 Gramsci, A. (1971), “On Education”, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated and Edited by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York: International Publishers, pp. 24-43. Available here.
11 Gramsci, A. (1916), Men or Machines?, first published in Avanti! Available here. Further, while Gramsci consistently speaks of “men”, we nevertheless believe his writings are more generally applicable to all people, and that they do help shed light on the issues at hand.
12 For a discussion of class and caste in higher education, in particular a discussion of higher education enrollments (pp. 42-43) and high-school dropouts (pp. 44-45), see Madan, A. (2020), Caste and Class in Higher Education Enrolments: Challenges in Conceptualising Social Inequality, Economic and Political Weekly, 55 (30), 40-47.
13 Admittedly, some part of the problem can be solved within academia, by retaining those who have, against terrifying odds, been able to survive and even thrive. It seems to us, however, that this is only a small part of the problem and incidentally, one that academia has only ever approached in a ham-handed fashion.
14 For example, it is simply not sensible to treat the recent dilution of the already meager protections afforded to labour by the Indian state (see Working People’s Charter (2020, September 23), Why The New Labour Codes Leave India’s Workers Even More Precariously Poised Than Before, Scroll.In) as an unrelated problem, separate from the NEP; they are but two tentacles of the same beast. Once again, the problem is one of compartmentalisation. What better way to stymie efforts to liberate the working classes than to push aggressively for the informalisation and contractualisation of labour, while simultaneously leaving them with no viable avenues to better their lot in life?
15 Gramsci, Men or Machines?
( The article was first published in Notes on the Academy, a magazine that aims to critically evaluate academic institutions and culture.)