With English language skills being regarded as important as IT skills in large parts of South Asia, Dr Elizabeth Erling – editor of a recent volume on English and Development: Policy, Pedagogy and Globalization – presents British Council-commissioned research on the relationship between English learning, skills development and economic gain in the region.
South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) is home to nearly one quarter of the world’s population and is the most densely populated geographical region in the world.
This population is shifting to become increasingly urban, with Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata and Mumbai now classified as world megacities. Of these, three (Dhaka, Karachi and Mumbai) are in the world's top five fastest growing megacities.
It is also one of the poorest regions with the lowest GDP per capita. Poverty affects every country in the region.
The new economies demand a skilled workforce that can meet the demands of the 21st century. Governments in all countries have launched a range of initiatives to tackle the skills gap. Though all countries of the region are potentially facing a demographic dividend, many are warning that this may become a demographic disaster if these skills initiatives fail.
These young people are often served by struggling education systems at all levels, which are failing to provide access and deliver quality in both the state and private sectors.
Access to English language skills
Within this context, it is essential that we properly understand the role that English plays and will play. For many jobs, communication skills in English are in increasing demand. English is becoming a ‘basic skill’, along with computer literacy. But low access to affordable and high-quality English language and soft skills are stated across the region to be a barrier in many sectors such as retail, financial services, IT, beauty and wellness, tourism and healthcare.
A 2013 report by Aspiring Minds, India’s ‘leading employability solutions company’ concludes that 47 per cent of graduates are not employable in any sector of the knowledge economy, given their English language and cognitive skills. The problem is even worse for students from smaller towns and cities (Aspiring Minds, 2013: 7).
However, rapid uptake of new technologies across the region – with mobile phone usage rising at an extraordinary rate - is changing the nature of access and demand for new English learning and assessment products and services. Technology is no longer only available to the affluent. Now it provides potential access to tens of millions of new learners. There are already major initiatives in private and public sectors to meet the demand of 'English for Employability' materials, through e- and m-learning.
How the British Council is involved in solving this problem
The British Council is working with a range of UK and South Asian partners to support the development of 'English Skills for Employability'. In India, a three-year programme funded by the European Commission is providing English and soft skills training for young people looking for work in tourism, manufacturing and agro-processing. The programme is reaching 10,800 students in two of the most marginalised districts in North India.
Teach India, a partnership with the corporate social responsibility wing of the Times of India, enables us to improve the English and soft skills of thousands of young students in two cities in India.
Partnerships with Sri Lanka's Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, and its Department of Technical Education and Training, have been set up to provide access to quality teacher training for language teachers.
An new mobile product, Jobseekers, provides extra support for South Asians who can't access face-to-face training.
There'a a clear need and demand for English. But a first-hand understanding of how English can benefit individuals and nations would help skills sectors design policies and strategies that would provide better value for money. We hope that this research will help the UK and South Asia understand how they can work together to share knowledge, expertise and experience.
Dr Erling presented this research at a round-table discussion yesterday as part of our South Asia Forum in London this week. This research will be available in report form at the end of December.