Since time immemorial, learning was highly valued in our country. Kings patronised scholars, regardless of the religion of either the king or the scholar. Through the ages, an educated person was looked upon with respect. Till the last century, a good degree could get one a job, that would sustain the person for life. Today, the disruptive technology of the twenty-first century has derailed the relationship between degrees and jobs and has made conventional learning obsolete.

A computer operated by a semi-literate person can now do in moments what an army of educated clerks used to do in months. It is quite another matter that the computer operator himself would face redundancy after IoT (Internet of Things) comes into its own. The job market has undergone a sea-change in the twentyfirst century. A fresh engineering graduate, if he is lucky enough to land a job, is paid much less than a car driver with five years of experience. No wonder, the majority of seats remain unfilled in Engineering courses across the country.

The same is true about Science and Arts courses in the majority of colleges. The hallowed portals of the great universities of yesteryear like Calcutta University, Mumbai University or Allahabad University are bereft of the presence of top students. On the other hand, there is cut-throat competition for admission to the IITs and you have to get more than 99 per cent marks in Class 12 for admission to under-graduate courses in some Delhi colleges. These paradoxes indicate a deep-rooted malaise in our education system. Resources are wasted as facilities remain unutilised in the majority of higher educational institutions.

People who had established private colleges and universities, at great expense, a decade ago have lost their shirt. Most of the students who had paid huge fees at the time of the educational boom, are now frustrated and unemployed. Obviously, our education system is out of sync with the current knowledge market and business requirements. Syllabi of educational institutions has to change continuously with the changing technology, which is simply not happening. At the undergraduate level, the IITs, which are the undisputed vanguard of technical education, teach old-age science and engineering branches in a conventional manner even as traditional engineering jobs are declining.

The finance companies that hire IIT graduates, do so for jobs that are far removed from their area of study, in the fond belief that a boy or girl who has cracked the IIT exam can excel anywhere. However, the future may not be as rosy. Less than 40 per cent of the 8 lakh odd students graduating from AICTE approved institutions got campus placements. The IITs, IIITs and NIITs fared somewhat better with campus jobs being offered to around 70 per cent graduates. Clearly, the future lies in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, data science and a multi-disciplinary approach which are not taught in the overwhelming majority of engineering colleges.

The rot in our education system starts from the first years of school education. Visit any village school and you would find a crumbling building where a single teacher may be teaching two or three classes of disinterested children in a single room. Most likely the school would have no running water, electricity or toilets. No wonder, Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) across the years say that most middle school children are unable to do simple arithmetical sums or even read and write in their mother tongues. Yet, by some unexplained miracle, there are hardly any failures in the tenth and twelfth Boards with millions of children scoring above 90 per cent marks.

Lakhs of children max mathematics and score more than 95 per cent marks in subjects like History and English. Examinations like the JEEAdvanced show the mirror to such stellar performance. The number of eligible candidates after JEE-Advanced 2018 was much less than the seats available at the IITs. At the instance of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the cutoff was lowered by 10 per cent, which increased the number of eligible candidates by more than 80 per cent, even then only 33,000-odd students qualified for admission though lakhs had scored above 90 per cent in the Twelfth Board examinations.

It would thus appear that educational standards have been deliberately lowered to conceal the rot in the educational system. Otherwise, a quarter century ago, when marking was more realistic, Board toppers hardly got 85 per cent marks and one got a first class only if one slogged really hard. Loose marking, with a view to pass as many students as possible, is also rampant at the graduate and postgraduate levels; witness the results of the UGC-NET examination of December 2019, in which only 7.5 per cent of the 8 lakh students could pass.

Most State Education Boards have lost their credibility. Bihar Board incurred widespread notoriety when photographs of parents scaling walls to “help” their wards were published. This notoriety was reinforced when videos of Bihar toppers fumbling to answer basic questions went viral. The once respected UP Board did not lag behind; one-sixth of the examinees dropped out when the Government decided to go tough with the copying mafias. Such mafias, in most states, establish colleges in remote places where examinees freely indulge in mass copying.

It is a different matter that the pass-outs from such dubious colleges are un-employable. University education is in no better shape. Politicisation and a surfeit of students in the 1960s and 1970s turned temples of learning into political addas. Today, dearth of funds and poor management have taken the shine off of almost all colleges and universities. Most students are well aware that degrees would not be of any help to them in the outside world. Consequently, a large chunk of our youth is turning away from education, perceiving education as irrelevant.

The first step towards the reform of our education system would be to give a purpose to education. One only has to see the popularity of examinations such as JEE and NEET, which attract millions of students for a limited number of seats, to realise that young men and women want to pursue courses which would guarantee fruitful employment. Ideally, our educational system should turn out well-qualified individuals who would effortlessly slip into their assigned roles. This is the way the education system is designed in most advanced countries, but our education system gives degrees not accompanied by any specific skill set, rather our education system churns out a crop of literate, but not educated, graduates and post-graduates.

We have ended up by having a large number of ‘educated’ unemployed who pose a problem for themselves as well as the society at large. One often comes across the unedifying spectacle of hundreds of post-graduates and MBAs vying for menial Government jobs. No wonder we have a problem of brain-drain; many young men go abroad for education only because education in other countries provides jobs. Primary education deserves our urgent attention. Government schools in villages, in which the majority of children study, are plagued by grave shortages of infrastructure.

The situation could be different, should the Government accord the same priority to construction and improvement of village schools as it does to construction of village toilets. Instead of reforming its own schools, the Government has come up with the Right to Education Act which is vociferously resisted by private schools. Thanks to the continuous tussle between the Government and schools, no significant benefits have been noticed even after nine years of implementation of the Right to Education Act. To make education relevant to the job market, vocational training should be made an integral part of the syllabus at the middle and secondary level.

At the graduate and post-graduate levels, the UGC should ensure that all universities have a contemporary syllabus and a fair examination system. Even these basic reforms have eluded our education system so far. The Higher Education Commission of India, which was touted as a panacea for the woes of universities, has failed to materialise. The National Education Policy 2019, an omnibus document aiming to cure the ills of education at all levels at a single go, ran into controversy the day its draft was published. Even otherwise, the Policy, a verbose document, prepared solely by academics, does not adequately focus on how to make education useful for business, industry and society.

The bottom-line is that educational reforms would be difficult to implement because of inadequate funding; Central and State Governments are spending only 2.6 per cent of the GDP on education, as against a goal of 6 per cent. One hopes that instead of merely paying lip service, the Government would devote sufficient resource to reform education. Nelson Mandela had said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” because for the poor, a good education is the only passport to a useful and decent life. Seen in this perspective, it is about time that educational reforms are seriously implemented.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)