Mind The Gap: What Government Policy Does to 'Skills'?

'Skills' is big on government agenda, particularly in countries like India where 69,000 people turn 25 every day. Given that only a few hundred thousand new jobs are being created in India every quarter, this means an alarming proportion of these 6 odd million people joining the ranks of the unemployed every quarter. 'Skills' is the panacea that the Government proposes, to enable a large number of people to be economically productive, either through employment or small enterprise. India is big in skills discussion, simply because of the size of the population and the problem, but many other countries are wrestling with the same set of challenges too, particularly those with expanding, and consequently young, population, and limited industry.

This is an urgent social problem and the government intervention should be welcome. To this, even David Cameron's Conservatives seem to agree: Apprenticeship policy receives prime time attention in the UK and one tax that his generally tax-cutting Chancellor of Exchequer did not blink imposing is an Apprentice Levy, a 0.5% levy on payrolls imposed on corporations of a certain size. The idea is to create a pool of resources so that young people can be trained and participate in the workforce: And, by common consent, businesses, principal beneficiaries of a skilled society, should be made to pay for it.

Despite my deep interest in skills development and professional education, I have generally steered clear of any involvement with any Government scheme. When I mentioned to someone that my aversion of government bureaucracies trying to run Education and Skill Development spring from my left-liberal leanings, he pointed out that this is more like a conservative instead. However, conservatives everywhere loves skills: In fact, skilling is a conservative mantra, and that the current chatter, even among Centre-Left governments, about skills and skilling indicates a general acceptance of the conservative point of view. I say this because for any left-leaning person, people are not resources, they are just people. They need to be educated, not skilled. They should be allowed to reach their full potential, and not condemned to their station in life, as canon-fodder for some employer.

That the Centre-Left governments, and indeed Centre-Right governments after them, make such a big deal of skills only indicates that the Conservatism is currently 'eating the world'. The Government involvement in skills undermines the government involvement in public education. And, as I have argued elsewhere, Government getting into skills actually de-skills a society, by creating perverse incentives and altering the playing field So, apart from my key political argument about skills and skilling, which I see as a de-humanising term, here are some of the other things we can see when governments 'become serious' about skills.

The Government intervention in skills shifts the initiative from the parties usually involved in skills development, employers and trade unions, to Government authorised training providers, which are, at best, bureaucratic organisations trying to reduce the process of education to a simple enough checklist, and at worst, fraudsters scamming yet another chunk of government money. A case in point is India, where the Government poured a significant amount of money for 'skilling', but this has led to general collapse of skills development in India instead. The Indian computer training companies, which reached great heights in their heydays in the 1990s and led the world, have lost their shine and became dependent on government handouts instead, and the story, instead of being one of social mobility and progress, has been of ghost learners, obsolete curricula and of late, after the Government insisted on more accountability, of biometric frauds.

So, government mandated skilling, for me, is another form of government violence, an act of definition that limit the agency of individual learners and turn identities to some sort of 'beneficiary'. The burden of bad training soon shifts to poorer people, who are labelled as lazy for not taking up the most inappropriate opportunity given to them. As the attempt to force them into jobs that neither existed, nor they understood anything of, fails, they are branded guilty, and in some part, they accept the guilt for failing to take the opportunity. And, in the meantime, Higher Education, categorised as a wholly different thing, can continue its business unaffected by the huge social exclusion in its wake, and can continue to argue that participation in economic life is not their business.

Given this experience, I reject the argument that Government funding of skills is designed to create a level playing field. The very act of definition of skills outside education should be treated as a deliberate policy to restrict human development, and delinking the community from the development of the individual and adopting a mechanistic view which is destined to fail for the recipient. All the 'skills agenda' is about maintaining a given social structure, rather than creating social mobility. Government can do a lot by funding education, encouraging research and in maintaining a forward-looking regulatory structure, but trying to define 'skills' and dictating who should go to skills and what skills is clearly an oppressive act.


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