English lessons alone won’t boost employment in South Asia

It’s not just English class that matters. Money Sharma/EPA

With a joint population of 1.6 billion, the South Asian countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are home to nearly one quarter of the world’s population. It is the most densely populated geographical region in the world, and one of the poorest.

Despite their political, economic and linguistic differences, the countries in the region have similar labour market issues. Education systems are failing to provide young people with the skills needed to fill the jobs of the future. Some argue that English language teaching should be a priority in response – but my research suggests that this is not always a clear cut route to better job prospects.

Demographic dividend or disaster?

All the countries in the region are facing a potential increase in economic growth and a drop in poverty as a result of a higher proportion of working age people in their populations.

Though all countries of the region face this potential demographic dividend, many are warning that a demographic disaster may be looming instead. Recent research by The Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that education systems in these countries are not preparing people with the skills that the new market demands.

The region is also home to the largest proportion of unemployed and inactive youth in the developing world. A World Bank report shows that there are high levels of underemployment, even among educated youth.

The rate of unemployment in India is 8.5% and youth unemployment is at 10.2%. In Sri Lanka, youth unemployment is 19.4%. These young people are often served by struggling education systems which are failing to provide access and deliver quality in both the state and private sectors.

What’s the greatest skills gap?

Increasingly, “skills development” is being framed as crucial to the development of the knowledge economy in this region. Governments across South Asia have launched a range of policy initiatives and interventions to address the skills gap, and this will also be a focus of development agendas post-2015 , when the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals passes.

Employability tests conducted in the region identify lack of computer literacy and general communication skills as a impediment to employment, but particularly prevalent in the policy discourse is the need for English language skills. English language teaching projects in the region are typically touted as “strengthening human resource development” and “improving prospects for well-paid employment”.

Within this context, it is essential that we properly understand the role that English plays and will play in skills development in South Asia. This is why the British Council asked me to carry out some research about the relationship between English language learning and skills development in the region. I reviewed the evidence that exists about the relationship between education, English language skills, skills development and economic development in the region.

The impact of English

I found that skills in English have a positive impact on economic development, and English language skills are highly rewarded in the labour market. But the story isn’t that simple.

People who speak English do, in general, tend to earn more. But returns to English language skills accrue along with other socioeconomic variables such as gender, ethnicity and class. For example, the average earnings of Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes – the historically disadvantaged groups in the region – are lower than that of someone with a similar educational background and a similar level of English. This suggests that English language learning on its own will not allow a person to overstep other socioeconomic obstacles. Compensation could be necessary in order to equalise opportunities for the disadvantaged.

It is also important to note that the studies I reviewed do not suggest – as some have asserted – that the fact that the region is highly multilingual has a negative impact on its economic development.

In fact, the use of local languages may be of particular value in the informal labour market, which accounts for up to 90% of jobs in South Asian countries. The use of local languages (and not English) may also account for a stronger relationship between education and economic development in some contexts, suggest some.

Not the whole picture

While the research carried out so far points to positive returns to those with good English skills, it may need to be interpreted with caution. This is because much research is based on individuals working in the formal labour market, where only a maximum of 10% of the people in the region work.

There may also be some question about the reliability of the English tests and statistical calculations used in these studies. And it is difficult to separate returns to English language skills from returns to quality education. People who have strong English language skills tend to also have had a high quality of education.

Simply delivering more English language education without detailed consideration of these issues, and without embedding education within wider programmes for development, is not likely to lead to economic development for individuals or nations.