The stupid signalling value of a degree


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.