Education policies are at Crossroads

Education is the best instrument for moderating people behavior but its real impact is the rewards it brings for the country. Lack of education is as much of a handicap for an individual as it is an obstacle for country’s operations. Education is one of the four major issues that hinder the prosperity of a nation. The other three are population, poverty, and corruption. People may hold subjective opinions about which of these challenges should be tackled first, but perhaps a chicken and egg situation exists here. Education is at crossroads.

There is this profound perception that education can control the others, but this observation is unfounded. Each one is important. But for tangible results, we will have to put in efforts on all of them together.

While evaluating the gamut of education, there is something that we tend to forget, and yet it should be the most important consideration in our minds. It is about the period it takes an individual to complete education. For 15 to 20 years in life, an individual and parents remain engaged in this pursuit, little realizing that in this period the basic aims and requirements of education may change. From the wider perspective, that is from that of the country, education is a long gestation project. The policies and deeds in education show effects only after a painful wait for years. It is therefore not good enough to take a snapshot to evaluate the country’s performance or to make policies thereof.  This process should be incessant.

Like any other serious effort, education has many stakeholders and unless everyone’s interests are taken care of, the process will neither be stable nor sustainable. The most apparent ones are the regulatory bodies, the funding agencies, schools, institutes, universities, students, teachers, and parents. Charitable establishments should come forward to join hands with the government to extend the reach of elementary education to the nook and far of the country; here the volumes of recipients are very large. Others, such as business houses with profit in mind, must not exploit people because this way they distort the intellectual fabric of the society. The management of education over a vast and populous country like India is more complex than it appears.

From Individual’s Viewpoint

Education is what makes an individual the breadwinner. What direction he takes for this purpose depends on his aptitude and deployable resources at his disposal. One may choose a vocation early in life or delay this by additional years for finding the right place in a lucrative profession. This is the objective view of individuals.

But something else is equally important. Education should enable him to face the world unassisted. It must create a mindset that enables understanding of the broad contours of real life problems, an ability to inquire into the available options, and willingness to follow a rigorous and disciplined approach to come to a solution. The learning process in a human starts from the childhood and continues until death. And this process is amazing; it teaches one how to learn.

The Larger Perspective

Citizens must be educated and trained to fit snugly in the family environment, interact in society as responsible members and discharge obligations as citizens of a democratic country. The globalization of life has awakened the middle class to the need of being at par with citizens of the advanced countries, in every aspect. It implies that the awareness of health, hygiene, discipline, and patriotism must be enhanced from the levels where it stands today. Our professionalism too must not lag behind. In other words, a certain type of education, the high school level, is now necessary for all citizens. And such education must reach all nooks and corners of the Indian geography. Inclusivity is a term that refers to this type of educational objective.

From a practical point of view, education must prepare individuals to carry out tasks that are required primarily for running the country. Be it defending the sovereignty, or marching ahead on the road to prosperity, or producing goods and services for its citizens. The country requires professionals, entrepreneurs, and administrators. In practice, the pressure of surviving in a materialistically rich world diverts our attention to education. An education that can fetch employment or foster entrepreneurship. Individual character building is driven to a background, a trend that we need to moderate.

Mission Unfulfilled

The dismal performance of the country in achieving all that was required concerning education raises doubts whether the failure is due to lack of political will, perpetually changing policies or inadequate regulation. Or simply inadequacy of thought.

A large percent of Indian children do not complete secondary education, for want of resources. Among tribal children, the dropout rate rises to a staggering 80 percent. Over 86 percent of India’s working-age men and 91 percent women are unskilled laborers. In comparison, almost 95 percent of the youth in developed countries formally learn a trade, a skill or a competence. In India, this figure is less than 1 percent. By the year 2030, 423 million of working-age people would be unemployed. A staggering number!

India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad, founded a system that catered for free and compulsory education at the primary level for children from 6-14. In 2009, also the right to education clause was later inserted in the Constitution for this purpose. To make this feasible, child labor was banned. Incentives such as midday meals were introduced. Educational cess was added to income tax. The largest of such initiatives was the campaign for education of all (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), for which the UPA government aimed to increase expenditure on education from three percent to six percent of the GDP. Despite these appreciable initiatives, education continues to elude the poor and it persists as an unrealised dream in the country.

Claims, that since independence in 1947 literacy rate has improved, are relevant only for the basic 3R (Reading, wRriting, and aRrithmetic) education. Beyond this, we have extremes; either dropouts or professionals. In the middle, we can define ‘A Mediocre Class’ of people who receive half-baked education at school level, or a misdirected one at the college; something that is insufficient for serious use in a profession. The mediocre class is the population upon which education was thrust. Going by the numbers, one may be proud that so many of them attended schools, but their performance in life as individuals, family members or citizens, indicates, this is only an illusion.

One should not go by a smaller percentage of high-class engineers, doctors, and administrators while evaluating the overall system. For inclusivity, villagers, mediocre class, homemakers and others must be considered as well. We are unlucky and helpless that we depend on formal education to make good citizens. Unlucky because this is the way we expect things to happen, and helpless because we are conservative in adopting alternate methods.

Prudence that needs bold decisions

We now realize that we have to resist the temptation that all must be sent for higher education. In practice, there is no need to fulfill this ambition. In a recent seminar in Delhi, the Swiss ambassador highlighted a unique approach to professional education. In Switzerland, the country of watches and quality, individuals are given vocational training and not high-intensity professional education. The country produces workers and managers but not designers in the true sense. After spending a few years as workers, when they are ready to understand the real issues in the industry, they return to universities for higher education or for learning design related issues.

There is some wisdom in this thought, and it gives good pointers to the way our education policy could be framed. In fact, this is perfect doctrine.

A word of caution

A popular view exists that education is a window of opportunity, which once opened might become a force multiplier for unleashing the country’s potential. While it is true to a large extent, and education is certainly an elixir of prosperity, this dream cannot be fulfilled because of a simple reason that we cannot provide matching opportunities for entrepreneurship or employment for the literates produced by the system. And this is precisely the reason that many lack the motivation to acquire education.

If the full throttle is applied to the education of the professional category, 50 percent of the 1.21 billion youth under the age of 25 years should get educated. This has a natural corollary that the country must have opportunities for about 50 million people. If we cannot do this, then millions of educated youth will end up in utter despair. The unrest by educated youth, or their indulgence in frauds, exploitation, extortion and other forms of crime, is probably more serious a calamity than to leave a few of them uneducated. Politically too, educating the masses does not seem to be in the interest of the leaders. It is easier to manipulate the illiterate

Politically too, educating the masses does not seem to be in the interest of the leaders. It is easier to manipulate the illiterate masses, and to exploit the educated but unemployed youth. In other words, educating the entire country for careers is probably counterproductive, undesirable to some extent and possibly unachievable in the next couple of decades.

Education requires thoughtful planning that takes into account the real needs of both the people and the country. It should not result in the mad rush, that outwardly aims for inclusive education but in reality, it is profit making. Education should be a natural, practical and sustainable process and not a commercialized industry, or a playground for the corporate. Education, when it is commercialized, loses its sheen because it goes out of the reach of those who need it the most.

Avoiding the Mirage

Political statements, twisted priorities, and misdirected counseling are building up a mirage where higher education is made to appear a panacea of all our woes. We are all jointly responsible for converting education into an industry and creating a caucus bigger than the real estate, and this political-corporate nexus is being projected as a well-wisher of the citizens. Otherwise, why we do not see institutes being owned or managed by scholars or educators.

As things stand today, the government seems to be providing lip service for inclusive education, without worrying that commercialisation of education is pushing it to beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, especially the higher education. Raising the level of monetary requirements for higher education helps the nexus, and when outcry is raised by the citizens, the political gimmick of reservations is brought into picture.

Who else, but the corporate, is the ultimate beneficiary of the present thrust on education.

Purposeful and Adaptable Education

Universal Primary Education, as advocated by UNESCO, does not need much of content design. The subjects are generally the same for all countries, only the resources, methods of delivery and volumes differ. But since UPE includes character building, what character it can build if multiple value systems prevail in the country. It is for this reason that we need to design and redesign the content of education for the schools. Lack of funds is encouraging the religious institutions to bulldoze their way and impart education that is certainly not desirable in the context of modern globalized society: examples are Madarsas and Churches.

Content differences creep in at vocational training or professional education levels due to the perpetually changing requirements of the industry, in different countries. The speed at which progress takes place in the country is not synchronous with the skill sets that its education system delivers. For example, if the 5-yearly plans were shifting gear from manufacturing to agriculture, the trained agriculturist would not become available in the plan period.

If policy makers sit in enclosed discussion forums and focus on what should be immediately done, it obviously means their horizon is restricted to the current issues. They are ill equipped to look into the future because they do not have the right data about the directions that the country, its economy, politics and social life will take in times to come. Therefore, they remain reticent on future requirements.

The answer to this predicament of matching the educational delivery with industry needs is a paradigm that is a combination of abstraction, modularization, and flexibility.

Traditionally, institutes have been offering packaged degrees and diplomas with emphasis on compulsory subjects. For electives, they do not have many options. This simplifies delivery, but for the changing requirements, such a model will not work. We will have to increase the possibilities of elective or optional subjects so that fine-tuning of skill sets becomes feasible.

We are going to be in the era of flexible degrees, wherein elective subjects could be chosen depending on the imminent industry requirements. The student may shift from one institute to another, to complete the package of his chosen options. The institutes may

The institutes may specialize rather than generalize.

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