Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The education wars

In country after country, the consensus over the importance of education is matched by angst over how to reform it. These debates have two dimensions. There is the increasingly murky relationship between education and employment. Unemployment is being attributed not merely to a business cycle downturn, but a mismatch between education and employment. In advanced countries, college graduates are less likely to be unemployed than their less educated counterparts. The technology revolution and globalisation produced a pitiless combination. On the one hand, you must have higher skills to have a shot at a job. On the other hand, there is global competition for those jobs. The answer to both these challenges, so the story goes, is education reform: education that allows you to participate in the economy, and education that allows you to compete. Both propositions seem intuitively obvious. But whether education will continue to be enough to give access to jobs, if the competition becomes genuinely global, is an open question. Education will be central to the arsenal of competition between nations. War metaphors are not alien to education. After all, the famous American Report, “A Nation at Risk”, had as far back as 1983 warned that the nation “has been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament”.
In countries like India, there is another version of the education-economy mismatch. There is a disjuncture between the demands of the economy and what education produces. Part of this may be simply a matching problem: there is a supply out there, but individuals cannot be matched with the right kind of jobs. Part of it is a genuine shortage, exacerbated by the fact that schooling is not the same thing as education, just as having a degree is not the same thing has having actual skills. Low (albeit growing) rates of educated female participation in the labour force means some of India’s significant human capital is simply not coming on the job market. India is also going to increase its retention rate in secondary schools and higher education. In the short run, this helps mitigate the employment challenge: it may be that the upward pressure on wages is due in part to the fact that the supply of labour is shrinking because more people are staying longer in school. States with higher education achievement like Kerala tend to have higher unemployment. So while education is intrinsically important, the relationship between education and employment in the long run is no less uncertain. The framework for calibrating education to the job market remains a leap of faith.

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