Report: Role of English in skills development in South Asia

Executive Summary

There are strong demands for English across society because of its perceived economic and social value. There are also several policy initiatives and interventions that promote English language learning programmes as part of skills development. While skills development and English language teaching are in high demand, there are issues about how this demand can be met. In order to explore whether the cost of providing English language as part of skills development is worth the investment, this report explores the evidence that exists about the relationship between education, English language skills, skills development and economic development.

These studies suggest the provision of quality education has a positive effect on economic development. While education is one factor that can lead individuals and nations to strengthen their opportunities for economic gain, a policy focus on education alone is not likely to bring on the desired impact. Education programmes need to be embedded in an overall development agenda, which support stability, regulation, transparency and good governance in order for there to be a significant impact.

The research conducted in South Asia confirms a link between quality education and economic development. However, the benefits of education align with other socioeconomic variables, such as gender, sector, class and location. The research also suggests that the benefits of education may not be equalising, particularly in India. Moreover, large numbers of school children in South Asia are not experiencing education at levels that will allow them to benefit economically. Therefore, without provision of quality education and without targeting the long-embedded inequalities in terms of gender, caste, etc., education is not likely to provide disadvantaged individuals with the resources that they need to catch up.

There is robust evidence that there is a relationship between TVET and economic gain, both for individuals and companies. This is also true in South Asia, although the returns vary greatly among countries, with the largest in the most developed country, Sri Lanka. One of the benefits of TVET for individuals is that behaviour traits valued by employers are transferred, providing an indirect link to employability and reward. There is not yet strong evidence of the effect of TVET on national economic development and social inclusion. This suggests that, as with education and economic development, the provision of TVET is unlikely to have the desired impact if not accompanied by other efforts to improve and stabilise the labour market.

These studies suggest that skills in English have a positive impact on economic development. English language skills are highly rewarded in the labour market. Returns to English language skills are heterogeneous and, like education in general, they accrue along with other socioeconomic variables such as gender, ethnicity, class and location. These studies do not suggest that use of local languages hinder economic development. Local languages may be of particular value in informal labour markets. Their use in education may also account for a stronger relationship between education and economic development. While the results so far point to positive returns to English, they may need to be interpreted with caution. This is because much research is about

individuals working in high-level jobs (not the informal sector). There may also be some question about the measures for English and statistical calculations used in these studies. Finally, it is difficult to separate returns to English language skills from returns to quality education.

In order for educational initiatives – particularly those for English language education – to have the designed impact on economic development, the following recommendations can be made, based on the studies reviewed here:

  • Education initiatives (at any level) need to be embedded within wider programmes for development;
  • The quality of education (at all levels) needs to be ensured;
  • A major focus of quality assurance in education should be on providing education through a medium that learners understand;
  • To make education equalising, compensatory interventions for the less advantaged are necessary;
  • More (high quality) pre-service and in-service TVET should be provided in South Asia, with links to industry and the private sector;
  • Since patterns are changing and there are differences in each context, there is a need for more (and better) research (see below);
  • As the incidence of TVET in South Asia is among the lowest in the world, there seems to be an urgent need for pre-service and in-service skills training.

The strong beliefs about the power of English make it all the more important for policy makers and project implementers to communicate clear messages about the value of basic education – and that skills in English are only likely to be of value if a strong educational base is in place. English language education, if part of skills development, should build on first language literacy and numeracy, and support also the development of generic employability skills.

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