If not the most important goal, “Education for All” is one of the major objectives of our society. Everyone assumes, without debate, that higher education is the only means through which the poor and downtrodden can aspire for a better future.
Many true life stories are told to drive home the importance of education: President Kalam was a poor fisherman’s son, Bhimrao Ambedkar was born to indigent parents etc.
No one will dispute the fact that basic education is a sine qua non for achieving anything worthwhile, but empirical studies do not support the proposition that higher education guarantees a better position in life.
The success of Kalam and Ambedkar was due more to their individual brilliance rather than their academic qualifications. One only has to look at the crowd of graduates, post-graduates and MBAs lining up for peon’s jobs to realise that degrees do not count for much, so far as success in life is concerned.
We can have a better understanding of this anomaly if we look at “education” and “academic qualifications” separately and do not equate an individual’s education with the number of degrees he has.
The good education gives us many qualities of head and heart including the ability to think intensively and critically. Martin Luther King, Jr. had aptly stated that intelligence plus character is the goal of true education while the only aim of a degree seeker is acquisition of the requisite knowledge to pass the prescribed examination.
Sadly, in India, the difference between literacy and education is often blurred because we have an educational syllabus which tests the knowledge of students but is woefully short on providing the other essential attributes of education viz. independent thinking and character building.
Pictures of mass copying in Bihar, viral videos showing toppers struggling to answer simple questions, reports that one-sixth of the UP Board examinees dropped out once the Government took tough steps against copying and the long running Vyapam Scam in Madhya Pradesh, where thousands of persons from all strata of society used dubious means to gain admission to professional colleges all prove that acquisition of a certificate ~ not acquisition of knowledge ~ is the objective of our youth who are not bothered about the morality of the exercise.
Such instances inexorably lead to the conclusion that our education system is so amoral that even twelve years of schooling are not sufficient to impart the rudiments of honesty to our students.
We can well imagine the cost civil society has to pay when such literate but uneducated persons reach responsible positions; invariably, the first thought of such people is to recover the investment in their “education” and the “expenses” incurred for getting the job in question.
Another result of our flawed education system is the emergence of a class of persons who build up large fortunes only by playing fraud on the Government and their fellow citizens.
None of these fraudsters is illiterate or comes from a deprived background. This leaves one wondering whether education, without values, has made man a more clever devil (CS Lewis).
A mundane example of prospering freebooters is the inside of a Government office where you can easily find scores of highly qualified people eager to be dishonest for the right price.
With the avowed motive of universalising education, colleges have been opened in remote areas where copying is the norm rather than the exception.
Such colleges provide the Government with publicity, they are also a profitable investment for their promoters and they make getting a degree child’s play for their students.
But it is a win-win situation only up to the point the students passing out of such colleges apply for jobs. Degrees earned through dubious means cannot pass muster with recruiters, while the very same degrees deter their holders from taking up blue-collar jobs.
Therefore, these unfortunate graduates remain perpetually unemployed; moreover, their education makes them unemployable. Sadly, such youth are found everywhere, in all corners of the country, whiling away their time in mindless pursuits and often turning to petty crime for survival.
The Government of India has placed a moratorium on the publication of unemployment data but OECD data suggests that 30 per cent of our youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed.
Extrapolating 2011 census data, the number of educated (graduate and above) unemployed would exceed 1 crore. These humongous numbers suggest that something is fundamentally wrong with our education system which does not equip our youth with the wherewithal to survive independently, leaving them at the mercy of avaricious employers.
Even elite institutions, the IITs and IIMs, do not impart the motivation and skill to students to strike out on their own. MBA courses mostly teach business finance not the intricacies of business with the aim of making their graduates employable in American financial institutions.
Likewise, the course content at the IITs is purely theoretical; teaching of entrepreneurship is totally neglected. Prime Minister Modi hit the mark squarely when he suggested that unemployed youth should start selling pakoras for their livelihood because that is the limit of the capabilities of the large number of youth graduating from fly-by-night institutions.
It is indeed strange that the Government has appointed powerful regulators for all sectors except education. Consequently, there is no uniformity in the content of similar courses offered by universities, no uniformity in the marks awarded and most importantly there is no matching of the number of students of a particular discipline to the number of opportunities available for them.
The University Grants Commission (UGC), which is supposed to regulate higher education, spends its time in indulging in farcical activities like asking Christ University to drop “University” from its name, leaving it with the moniker “Christ” only.
Taking the pakora discussion further, there is hardly any facility to train blue-collar workers who form the bulk of our workforce. A paradox exists in the job market; while we have a large number of unemployed persons, almost as many posts are lying vacant.
The polytechnics and Industrial Training Institutes, who should supply industry requirements, follow outdated syllabi and function in the most pathetic conditions.
Given the fact that almost all college entrants pursue education only to get a job, an overhaul of polytechnics and IITs and linking their certificates to jobs has a potential to reform both the unemployment scenario and the higher education sector because only those having a love for learning or having the capability to land a white-collar job would enrol in a college.
Though a number of efforts have been made by the Government to revamp our educational system, none has succeeded because of their fragmented nature and inadequate follow-up.
The present problem of educated unemployment has been exacerbated by an admirable initiative of the Government ~ universalisation of primary and secondary education. However in most institutions, the quality of education on offer leaves much to be desired.
Successive Annual Status of Education Report(s) (ASER) paint a disturbing picture of the learning deficit of school children. Higher education suffers primarily because of the poor academic foundation of many of the students entering college.
We can learn from the experience of countries like Germany where simple steps like better primary education, segregation of children between academic and vocational streams after high school level, and admissions to courses based on the number of opportunities have successfully addressed the mismatch between jobs and education.
After the meltdown of 2008, President Barack Obama foresaw the danger of continued unemployment. He wrote: “What is a danger is that we stay stuck in a new normal where unemployment rates stay high, people who have jobs see their incomes go up, businesses make big profits.
But they’ve learned to do more with less, and so they don’t hire.” As on today, uncannily similar conditions obtain in India. We have high unemployment; big businesses are booming and the rich are getting richer. One only hopes that Obama’s prophecy does not come true in our country.
The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax