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The stupid signalling value of a degree

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As Shah points out, for the 63 million formal and informal MSME units in the country, the kind of talent graduating from a university like TLSU is crucial. This new type of employee—technical and teachable—is required. A midpoint between a blue-collar worker and a white-collar degree holder, who can hold down a job, have basic computer literacy and integrate with the team. As an employer, Shah indicates that this is exactly the type of employee he’d want to hire.

The Actual Concept

Shah has been disappointed with pure engineering recruits in the past, many of whom join without any work experience. “We aren’t huge 500-member units. We need recruits who aren’t siloed in their jobs and can adapt to a variety of roles,” he adds. With TLSU graduates, MSMEs like G-Tek—which currently employ close to 100 million people— don’t have to spend on re-skilling.

But job-readiness is more art than a perfect science. And getting it right, says Sabharwal, could mean a wage premium for the TLSU graduate. Already, claim Mitra and Umatt, BCom graduates from TLSU are hired at Rs 25,000 ($351) per month, almost double the market rate for an entry-level BCom graduate.

With inputs from its industry partners, TLSU thinks it has all the ingredients to fashion the perfect job-ready candidate. But creating a brand new category of graduates confuses the rigid social hierarchies of degrees versus diplomas. Second, it begs the question: did TeamLease really need a university campus to do this?

Value Of The Degree

For detractors of the centralised university model, TLSU’s structure is antithetical to its mission of widespread, dignified and job-ready skilling. “A centralised university model has crashed and burned in the Indian context. Why would we try the same thing for skilling?” asks a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, who runs a grassroots skilling company which runs training centres across the country. As the head of a rival to TeamLease, she preferred not to be quoted.

For decades, the path to improve higher education has been through building more infrastructure. As the entrepreneur explains, TLSU runs the risk of becoming yet another centralised facility, incapable of handling the diverse skilling requirements in the country.

Accessibility isn’t a challenge anymore. The inability to redefine access, however, says the entrepreneur quoted above, is a serious issue. “To reach a vast majority of youth who actually need to be skilled, India needs to adopt a multiple entry and exit system, which allows students to work and get certified simultaneously,” she adds.

The problem isn’t that simple. Had that been the case, the newly-introduced BVOCs or Bachelors of Vocational Education would’ve solved it. A BVOC allows students to exit after the first or second year with a diploma or advanced diploma, respectively. Much like TLSU’s degree programmes. In addition to a flexible study path, a BVOC also signals a larger shift towards a credit-based system, something widespread across European countries.

BVOC enrollments, though, have been abysmally low—around 3,900 students across India opted for it in 2018. TLSU’s degree programmes, however, account for 50% of their enrollments, while only 20-25 students are enrolled for a diploma. The rest are enrolled in a mix of advanced diplomas, online training or short-term, upskilling courses, according to information shared by the institute.

Calling it a vocational degree has punctured its importance, says Dinu Poonacha, head of strategy and consulting at the Centre for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (CSDE) in Bengaluru. CSDE is the policy think tank arm of Nudge Foundation, a non-profit to upskill low-income graduates. “Vocation is for the poor, and education for the rich. That dichotomy has always existed,” says the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur mentioned above.

That’s why, as a consultant to the Delhi government for its upcoming skilling university, Poonacha disagrees that creating a university has no inherent value, even if a majority of the learning happens off-campus. A university tag, he argues, can actually quell some of the discomfort around pursuing a “vocation”. It can also unlock more resources and support for research on skill development, which India’s sorely lacks.

“You need to be a university to award degrees, and that’s what 97% of graduates aspire to,” adds Poonacha, quoting from a recent Observer Research Foundation study. Sabharwal calls it the “stupid signalling value of a degree”. Even though students may only need a vocational diploma to become job-ready and start earning, it’s the social swagger of a degree they aspire to.

 

Progress path of the hard-working TLSU

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But TLSU couldn’t be more different from the archaic ITI that incubates it. Its interiors have been refurbished to look more professional, while one of the floors is fitted with an industrial kitchen and an attached restaurant. The floor below that houses a well-equipped mechatronics lab. “Companies like Larsen & Toubro and Apollo Tyres have given us the latest equipment to train with,” says Dr Anupam Mitra, head of TLSU’s commerce department.

It isn’t just the physical bells and whistles that set it apart, though. TLSU’s new and improved vocational curriculum is in sharp contrast to ITI’s outdated ones. “All our courses go through a Board of Study, which features at least two to three industry participants and academics from other universities. They help us keep the curriculum relevant,” says Umatt. For instance, the mechatronics department recently included the study of sensors, an integral part of machinery used in automation.

Being situated inside the ITI campus also locates TLSU close to the industries whose ranks it seeks to bolster, via the adjacent Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC).

A BCom by any other name

“TLSU is different from other universities in one critical way. We only pray to one god. The employer,” says Sabharwal. Creating employable candidates is the guiding principle.

Students can either be on-campus, onsite (training at a companyq), online or placed on-the-job. Further, they can choose between a diploma (1 year), an advanced diploma (2 years), a degree (3 years) or a short-term course, which may last anywhere between 3-9 months. These combinations, says Sabharwal, enable students to work towards degrees over 5 to 10 years. Even within the regular degree course, an entire semester (4 months) is dedicated to on-the-job training (OJT) with companies across different sectors.

“We work with employers to come up with a continuous evaluation system for the student. It ensures students actually learn job-related skills, instead of just being used to do repetitive work,” says Umatt. Students often end up getting offers while their OJTs are still on, she adds.

Sitting in his tiny, low-lit cabin, Mitra juggles a constant stream of phone calls while answering questions. “A bachelor’s degree in commerce (BCom) is the most popular course here,” he adds. A BCom isn’t typical of a vocational or skill-driven university, and Mitra insists that the way it’s taught at TLSU is indeed different from mainstream institutions. “We teach them practical skills… Like calculating taxes or filling up challans,” he explains.

Mitra’s enthusiasm about TLSU’s commerce courses is somewhat tempered by the sobering reality that not many people still take a vocational skilling university seriously. “On the outside, the curriculum looks exactly the same. But our pedagogy is completely different. Students and parents don’t realise that. It’s still just a BCom course to them,” he says.

The proximity of Vadodara’s legacy institution—Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU)—and other private colleges, further compounds the problem. TLSU still attracts a student base that doesn’t score enough for legacy institutions like MSU or can’t afford high-end private alternatives.

Job ready

Despite lower-than-average fees ($352 per semester), TLSU offers scholarships to attract a wider student base. In the academic year 2019, TLSU offered a total of 480 seats, out of which 35 seats in every course were allocated to scholarship students. In 2018, TLSU reached out to over 200 high schools in Vadodara to raise awareness about their courses but, as Mitra indicates, the quality of placements will be their ultimate advertisement.

The GIDC complex next door gives TLSU plenty of placement opportunities to test this hypothesis. Even though the neighbouring ITI also supplies students to the same micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), some employers told The Ken they prefer the TLSU placements.

“The main difference in how equipped the new recruits are with the right soft skills,” says Asutosh Shah, the director of a Vadodara-based electronics enterprise called G-Tek. Shah was part of an initial advisory council at TLSU. He now employs three mechatronics graduates from TLSU, and one student is currently pursuing an apprenticeship at his firm.

 

Stuck in beta: TeamLease Skills University needs a work-study balance

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Manish Sabharwal is one of the foremost evangelists when it comes to skilling in India. The co-founder and chairman of TeamLease Services, India’s largest staffing company, Sabharwal is relentless in his mission to mainstream skilling, with his op-eds a near-constant across India’s leading dailies.

Knowledge: One Of The Most Valuable Asset

Unsurprisingly, conversations with Sabharwal, too, are peppered with one-liners related to skilling. One of his favourite tenets is ‘prepare, not repair’. It’s a key spoke in his ideological belief wheel, and it’s this belief that led him to fashion TeamLease Skills University (TLSU), India’s first such privately-owned institute.

Located in the heart of the industrial cluster in Vadodara, Gujarat, TLSU has had a singular mission since it opened its doors in 2013. Churn out job-ready candidates for the market. “We already have over 200,000 students. It’s India’s fastest-growing university,” says Sabharwal.

As a university, its existence is almost disruptive to the whole idea of higher education—a banal system that currently shuffles students from schools to colleges to a job market they’re largely unprepared for.

TLSU wants to fix that broken link. It’s keen to trim the fat around knowledge creation, focusing on a theory-light but practice-heavy curriculum and pedagogy. TLSU, according to Sabharwal, is a university of the future—an attempt to bridge the huge employability gap between education and employment.

According to the India Skills Report published by the Confederation of Indian Industry and placement company Wheebox, 63% of employers feel no job seekers meet the “required skills”. Worse, the leaked Periodic Labour Force Survey in 2018 showed that four in ten formally trained young Indians are unemployed. And while there are many universities spread across the country—993 as per the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19—they have a gross enrollment ratio of just 26%. Clearly, while degrees might be popular with Indian youth, university campuses are definitely not.

These abysmal figures spotlight the dire need for an institution like TLSU, where off-campus training forms a larger part of the curriculum than classes on campus.

“We only launch courses that we know have a demand in the industry. There’s no point in offering a degree without a job,” says Dr Avani Umatt, the provost at TLSU. According to information shared by TeamLease Services, TLSU currently has 400 students enrolled across a variety of courses. The university has a 100% placement rate till date.

As TeamLease co-founder, Sabharwal has enjoyed a ringside view of India’s skills market. As a founding council member of the National Skills Development Mission, he’s been plugged into crucial policy decisions aimed at unlocking skilling for the masses. Now, Sabharwal has turned educator, sensing both a business opportunity and the chance to shift the higher education paradigm.

But despite Sabharwal’s strong claims about TLSU’s growth and importance, TLSU is still largely in its beta phase after half a decade of existence. For one, it’s facing an existential threat from older, more established colleges in its vicinity and nascent skilling universities in states like Rajasthan and Haryana. Second, vocational diplomas don’t hold much allure in a degree-obsessed country like India.

For the sake of its own existence, TLSU needs to bridge the parallel worlds of work and study. On a war footing.

New, Improved, Frugal.

How TLSU came to be is a mini urban legend on campus. Almost every faculty member is familiar with it. Impressed by Sabharwal’s speech at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2012, the state government, then under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, approved TeamLease’s proposal to set up a university. The company put forth similar proposals in other states but to no avail. A year later, TLSU opened its doors.

The TLSU campus is a humble, three-storey building situated in a corner of Vadodara’s ITI park. ITIs or Industrial Training Institutes, were the first and till recently, only conduit to a vocational education in India. According to experts that The Ken spoke with, ITIs are a mixed bag quality-wise, and often list outdated “trades” like stenography.