Western nations race to get ahead in India

8th March 2013 at 00:00
College principal says UK must act fast to gain the advantage

By 2022, India will need an astonishing 500 million skilled technicians to service its booming economy. By 2025, almost a quarter of the global workforce will be Indian. Not surprisingly, then, Western nations are queuing up to tap into the most rapidly growing market for vocational training in the world.

Among the major players making their move in the country are the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Germany. Now the UK has decided to enter the market, with the newly formed Association of Colleges in India (AoC India) establishing a team in Delhi.

Last month, three UK college principals were part of a delegation led by Prime Minister David Cameron to India, designed to cultivate a "special relationship" and closer economic ties between the countries. But AoC India chair Asha Khemka has warned that the UK is at risk of being left behind in the vocational arms race for India.

Ms Khemka arrived in the UK from India at the age of 25, unable to speak English and with three small children. She is now principal of Vision West Nottinghamshire College and passionately believes that British FE colleges have a responsibility to do their bit to support young people in India.

"We have a collective responsibility to make a contribution," she told TES. "We need to start to make an impact. We have done talking and raising the profile, but we need to see a visible impact."

In recent weeks, UK colleges have faced some criticism domestically for focusing their attentions overseas. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said some institutions had "lost their way a bit" and insisted that they needed to focus on "what's happening in Deptford rather than Delhi".

Ms Khemka said Sir Michael's comments were "not helpful". "You don't have to just concentrate on teaching and learning or do other things," she said. "We are not taking our eye off teaching and learning and the student experience. It is a challenge (to manage domestic and overseas provision simultaneously) but one we have to overcome. We can prove we are in a position to do both. We wouldn't be doing this at the cost of what we already do.

"Vocational need is greatest at the moment in India. By not doing anything in India, it doesn't mean you will be improving teaching and learning at home. There are other countries really racing ahead, such as Germany, Canada and the US. We are already getting behind."

The 32 colleges currently taking part in the AoC India initiative will meet later this month to discuss the next phase of their strategy, and their numbers could be boosted further. "More colleges are interested," Ms Khemka said. "My own view is that if more want to join I don't see any reason why not."

And the message is also gaining traction among politicians, she believes: "It was the first time three college principals had been part of a prime minister's delegation. I had a chat with David Cameron and he was very happy to listen to all that we had to say. The message is that vocational education is important, and the message is being heard.

"We have a great story to tell: we are a world leader in vocational education."

AoC India has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Confederation of Indian Industry. The AoC's international director, John Mountford, said the deal would give the association "a key role in supporting the development of India's skills landscape".

India's Ministry of Human Resource Development has also confirmed that it has asked AoC India to support 25 community colleges in the country by improving their strategies and structures.

But the UK is certainly not the only country that has made a move in India: Germany recently held a discussion with the country on developing scientific and technological skills.

And a report published last year by Australia Education International - the wing of the Australian government responsible for promoting its education system overseas - called on the Australian FE sector to enter into further collaboration with India in areas such as hospitality, retail, food processing and tourism.

Switzerland has already embarked on a pilot project in Bangalore and Pune to improve the standards of vocational training, funded by private industry partners.

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