Precarity in Education: Insights from a study on the vocationalization of secondary education in India

Vocationalization of education in India was introduced fairly early in 1988 to offer vocational courses for two years alongside other subjects in higher secondary education. The programme was revised to the VHSE (Vocationalization of Higher Secondary Education) in 2011 with a view to cater to India’s economic growth and a growing demand for labour in the international market through the creation of a suitably skilled workforce. This was further revised to the VSHSE (Vocationalization of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education) under the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) in 2014, to include secondary school, or 9th and 10th  standard [1].

The policy focuses on government schools, especially out of school children and drop outs, aiming to introduce skills training early to enhance productivity in the informal sector, which constitutes over 90% of the workforce in India. It has however been argued that such a model only serves to reinforce informality by restricting socially and economically disadvantaged children to blue collar employment opportunities (Saraf, 2016). This is situated in a larger critique of skills development initiatives within the paradigm of neoliberal economic and educational planning, which is directed towards creating labour for the sustenance of private business interests, rather than contributing to the bargaining power of individuals in the labour market and their opportunities for entry into the formal workforce (Jackson, 99).

Within such a context of skills training, a project by CBPS[2] attempts to gain a sociological understanding of the impact of the skills programme on children in government schools. These children largely come from lower class and lower caste families, where the parents are engaged in informal daily wage labour, and the children are mostly first generation learners. Some of the questions we try to address in this project are – how do students navigate the precarious conditions of their lives, how does this relate to their educational experience in institutionalized settings, how do these experiences play a role in shaping aspirations and related decision making and finally, what are the implications of all of these factors in the lives of the students in terms of concrete outcomes?

In answering these questions, one notes that these students have a precarious relationship with education (Harwood et al, 2013), both because of the financial and social disadvantage of their everyday lives, as well as through lower access to quality education which is not only an outcome of educational exclusion but also furthers institutionalized inequity in education.  This crucial stage in students’ transition to higher education or work is thus marked by insecurity. It has been argued that in the face of such uncertainty or ‘risks’ that are characteristic of late modern society, there is an increasing tendency of individuals to engage reflexively with their environment to take strategic decisions and life choices. It is not the logic of structural social order that is central to life outcomes, but an increasing individualization of decision making as individuals encounter complex and contradictory global as well as personal risks (Beck, Giddens and Lash, 1994). However, as Lehmann (2009) notes, to exclusively focus on the individualization discourse tends to also blame individuals for all failures they encounter, and overlooks the persistent impact of socio-cultural factors such as caste or class barriers in shaping life outcomes.

I argue further that the skills programme in its intent, design and implementation, extends the insecurity of a competitive market into the domain of education, riding on the perpetuation of such an individualization discourse. By not being cognizant of the contexts of the students, the programme in effect reproduces existing patterns of exclusion.

Evidence of this insecurity is found during conversations with students about their futures and aspirations. Responses typically indicated a lack of awareness about higher educational trajectories, possible work opportunities, and a high degree of uncertainty about what students wanted to do immediately after they finished 10th grade. Such decisions for the students were contingent on numerous other factors ranging from passing the 10th grade in the first place to the need to support the family financially – circumstances largely arising out of their precarious life contexts. In terms of the impact of the skilling programme in such a situation, several conflicting discourses operate within schools. One is the advertising of the programme as an attractive package of skills which offers the possibility to enter into a glamorous world of white collar jobs. Along with this exists the prestige and preference that has been for long accorded to ‘academic’ education over ‘vocational’ education as it is seen as an avenue towards better jobs. So children considered ‘bright’ who were traditionally encouraged to pursue higher academic education are now, according to many teachers, being lured by the appeal of skills training, without, however, too much clarity on where this could lead. Another issue is the theoretical orientation of the course design, which does not equip students with the hands-on skills required by the jobs they are being trained for, or address the issue of cultural knowledge required to succeed in these fields if one were to pursue them. A look at the course curricula and job roles also tells us that the scope for upward mobility in the various sectors is limited, since these intend to train for highly specialized jobs in the lowest rungs of service sector employment. Further, there is no assurance of employment by these courses since they only aim to reduce the burden on higher education institutions by diverting students to the vocational field and making them employable as per industry demands and requirements. The programme thus offers the possibility of social and economic mobility, the realization of which however is largely dependent on how much effort an individual is able to put in to overcome barriers, in their own capacity.

This trickling down of the insecurity of work into students’ relationship with schooling, through the individualization of responsibility, only compounds their already precarious existence.  In an already risky job environment, students must now acquire skills for lifelong learning, entrepreneurship and adaptability to a rapidly changing market as early as possible – all in essence survival tactics for a precarious work environment. While students have to strategically make choices around education and employment through calculating risks and contingencies, a programme designed to mitigate the effects of a precarious existence, in effect, relegates students from marginalized backgrounds to the domain of precarious employment in the future.

Note: I would like to thank the skills project team at CBPS for helping develop some of these ideas.

[1] The Vocationalization of Higher and Higher Secondary Education (VSHSE) of 2011 is a centrally sponsored scheme under the Ministry of Human and Resource and Development to integrate vocational education with academic education in schools from the secondary stage onwards. It is implemented in accordance with the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF), which is “a competency-based framework that organizes all qualifications according to a series of levels of knowledge, skills and aptitude” and is anchored within the Ministry of Skills Development and Entrepreneurship. (

[2]   ‘A critical sociological analysis of the skills development initiative in India’ is an ongoing project at CBPS


  • Harwood, V., O’Shea, S., Uptin, J., Humphry, N., & Kervin, L. (2013). Precarious education and the university: Navigating the silenced borders of participation. International Journal on School Disaffection, 10(2), 23-44
  • Beck, U., Giddens, A., & Lash, S. (1994). Reflexive modernization: Politics, tradition and aesthetics in the modern social order. Stanford University Press.
  • Lehmann, W. (2009). Becoming middle class: How working-class university students draw and transgress moral class boundaries. Sociology, 43(4), 631-647.
  • Saraf, R. (2016). Skill Training or Nipping Potential in the Bud?. Economic & Political Weekly, 51(18), 17
  • Jackson, N. S., & Jordan, S. S. (1999). Skills Training: Who Benefits?. Centre for Research on Work and Society, York University.

Ketaki Prabha
Research Assistant, CBPS


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