Monday, November 16, 2015

Reforming the education system

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education – Albert Einstein

Make no mistake. India is heading into an education and employment crisis.

At more than 127 crore people, India is home to world’s 2nd largest population. Nearly 1/3rd of this is in the age group of 0-14 years, who are / will be entering primary & secondary schooling in the coming years. An estimated 40 thousand colleges in the country enroll more than 2 crore students under various courses every year, a majority of them in the 3 year B.A. / B.Com. / B.Sc. courses. There is no way any government scheme or programme can create gainful employment for these aspirants in such large numbers. The task before the country’s education system is to prepare this generation for the humongous challenges that lie ahead.

India’s current education system traces its origins to Thomas Macaulay’s English Education Act of 1835. The Act introduced English as the principal medium of instruction, and sought to create a neo-intellectual class who held English in high esteem and contempt towards the traditional. “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”, Macaulay wrote. The Act created a system which produced a useful workforce of English speaking clerks and officers, loyal and ready to serve the Raj.

To this day, the basic character of the system Macaulay framed remains the same. Our education holds conservatism and obedience as big virtues, discourages daring & risk taking, and challenge to established conventions are held in contempt. Deference to authority becomes a ‘good habit’, discipline is demanded and rewarded. Creating such a mindset among the people suited the Imperial administration subjugate a large population, who could otherwise rebel and throw the outsiders out.

But is that what we need to teach our children today? We need a system which abolishes this slave mentality, and creates employers, not employees.

At a fundamental level, the purpose of education is to cause mental, physical and spiritual development of an individual. These qualities form in the early years of a child’s life. To start with therefore, we need a much larger focus on soft skills in primary education than is given at present. Risk taking needs to be encouraged. Failure should be taught as a stepping stone to success, rather than something to be ashamed of. Qualities such as hard work, perseverance, team spirit, motivation and determination need to be tested and assessed for each child. We need to teach our children that long term gain often involves short term pain. A mindset which embraces change needs to be consciously cultivated.

I don’t even ask whether we are doing it today, I first want to know whether there is a way to do this today, formally and methodically. Most probably – the answer is ‘no’. So this is where we need to start. We need to find ways how these qualities can be inculcated in our children. What are the teaching methodologies we should use, and how it can be done effectively & consistently. I have no straightforward answers for these questions.

On a more practical level, our education needs to prepare our children to make a gainful living. They need to create ‘value’, in the economic sense of the term. Where are we on this paradigm?
Rajabhai Tower, University of Mumbai

Like in many other fields, the internet has completely changed the playground for education. Information on nearly everything is available at our fingertips. Accessing knowledge has become easy. But using this knowledge in ways that benefits humanity, creates value, is what will differentiate tomorrow’s winners from the rest. The graduates our universities churn out year after year are little capable of doing this. Industry complains that they are unemployable. The lucky few who find jobs get trained by their employers after joining. They find little use in their day to day work for what they learnt in college. After spending 15 years of life and lacs of rupees, for a majority of our graduates the return on investment in education is zero.

To address this problem, the present government has focused heavily on “skill development". The initiatives under various skill development programmes recognize deficiencies of the current system to impart job oriented skills to students and make them ‘employment ready’ with the industry. While these initiatives are welcome, it is still too little when confronted with the enormity of the task of making our children ‘life ready’.

In the last 15 – 20 years, new technologies and business models have completely altered the global business landscape.  At the risk of using a much clichéd term, change has become the only constant, and at a pace that is simply mind boggling. We have no clue how the business world & industry will look ten years from now. The ‘skills’ we train our children today may become redundant in a few years from now, while those which dominate tomorrow have not even been developed today. This is what the focus on skill development leaves out. It is not to say that skill development is not useful, but it is just not sufficient. Skills come much later in life; it is training the mind where we are failing miserably.

A paradigm shift is needed in the way we look at education itself. Periodic revision of curricula does little to address these concerns. TV Mohandas Pai points out that education has now moved to a technology platform. A student in India can get a U.S. degree sitting at home, while our Universities are not allowed to offer courses outside the state. He foresees “many students will soon move away from the formal system of education and would get a degree through MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online courses, and these degrees will be recognized by the world”.

There is little recognition of this disruption in government circles. The system seems to be unable to move beyond minor tinkering of the mandated curricula, exam patterns and Nehruvian regulation. For example, a recent committee appointed by the HRD Ministry was tasked ‘to review’ the JEE system for admission to IITs. The committee viewed the private ‘coaching industry’ as a menace rather than a partner in imparting education to willing students. But before we reform the 'entrance tests', the important question to ask is - do we even need entrance tests and selection processes at all, when we can digitize our books and lectures, opening them up to every single aspirant? Professors can concentrate on solving queries and answering questions online, while holding webinars which can be attended by thousands of students from their homes. My guess is that even if 80% of a course can be ‘delivered’ in this way, it can bring manifold economic benefits, because access has been given to every single aspirant at no extra cost & effort, and not just to select few who pass the entrance tests. In fact, a scenario where the universities concentrate only on conducting certifications while giving students the freedom to learn from wherever they want, will dramatically improve the effectiveness of education. Unfortunately, such changes are not even on the agenda.

If we don’t fix our education urgently, we are heading for a job crisis of mammoth proportions.

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