Support community colleges growth

The Indian economy has changed significantly in the past decade resulting in corresponding change in the nature of work and demand for skills. While more than half of Indias GDP is contributed by services, more than two-third of the population is still employed — or more accurately under-employed — in the agricultural sector.

This indicates that while the demand for trained and skilled employees from the services sector of the economy has surged, access to VET (vocational education and training) has not improved. With only 12 percent in the 18-24 age group population having access to higher education, India is constrained by a severe and accentuating shortage of skilled manpower. Against this backdrop of a severe demand-supply imbalance of skilled personnel, the promotion of community colleges offers a win-win solution which could meet industry demand and improve employability of the 88 million in the age group 18-24 who dont/cant make it into traditional institutions of higher education.

Therefore the teachers community needs to acti-vely support promotion and development of comm-unity colleges to meet the challenges of access to post-secondary education and bridge the skills gap of Indian industry. Recently, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) announced the launch of 100 community colleges across India. Under the Eleventh Plan (2007-12), IGNOU plans to establish 400 new community colleges across the country.

Community colleges in the US serve the purpose of providing easy access to secondary school leavers to vocational training for workforce development, offering non-credit certificate programmes related to community engagement or cultural activities, and preparing students for transfer to four-year bachelors degree institutions.

Currently Americas nearly 1,200 community colleges enrol more than 11.5 million students constituting nearly half of all undergraduate enrolments, and produce almost 600,000 students annually with two-year associate degree certification. The average age of students in Americas community colleges is 29 years with nearly 60 percent enroled in part-time study programmes.

In particular with the US economy experiencing severe recessionary contraction, community colleges are witnessing record enrolment, with laid-off workers looking for continuing education and middle class families for cost-effective post-secondary education. Given that tuition fees in public community colleges average $2,400 (Rs.1 lakh) per year against $6,500 (Rs.2.90 lakh) in public undergraduate colleges, and more than $20,000 (Rs.13.65 lakh) in private undergrad colleges, spending two years in a community college and transferring to a four-year college degree programme is making good economic sense to an increasing number of households across America.

Encouraging and funding community colleges is making good sense to the Obama administration as well. President Obama recently proposed a $12 billion (Rs.54,600 crore) initiative to provide direct financial assistance to US community colleges for modernisation and construction, to improve academic and student support services and for funding online study programmes. The outcome of this massive investment is expected to increase the throughput of graduates from 1 million currently to 5 million by 2020.

Somewhat belatedly, the community colleges movement is gaining ground in India. Pressing industry demand for trained and skilled workers; higher GER (gross enrolment ratio) in tertiary education targets set by government; communitisation of education and public demand for superior quality goods and services has given momentum and urgency to the community college movement.

The case for skilled workers and artisans in India has been articulated by P. N. Sankaran in a well-researched paper (Discussion Papers in Social Responsibility, www. socialresponsibility.biz). Sankarans argument is that artisanship, masonry and related skill-sets which are in short supply, are traditionally handed down through generations. However such professionals tend to be bereft of basic communication, numeracy and finishing skills. Provision of basic skills training could stimulate a productivity surge as well as regenerative processes in the new knowledge-based Indian economy.

Thus the promotion and multiplication of community colleges across the Indian landscape needs the support of the teachers community and Indian academia as it will further the cause of VET and higher education in a contiguous manner, and provide millions of citizens access to meaningful tertiary education. A rapid growth of the community college movement will give a second chance to the 88 million who cannot access higher education while simultaneously providing a productivity boost to Indian industry and the economy.

(Dr. Rahul Choudaha is a New York-based higher education expert. Dr. Ananya S. Guha is with the IGNOU Institute for Vocational Education and Training, Shillong)

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