Education has a glorious history in India; texts like the Vedas and Puranas were composed by learned rishis and munis thousands of years before the Christian era. Gurukuls were imparting holistic education much before the West had even thought of schools. Takshila had emerged as a centre of learning in the fifth century BC. Nalanda, the world’s first residential university, home to nine million books and 10,000 students from Eastern and Central Asia, was established in 427 AD. Amongst other subjects, these ancient universities taught medicine, logic, and mathematics.
However, both Takshila and Nalanda, and much of traditional learning, could not survive the onslaught of marauders; Takshila was abandoned in the 5th century AD and Nalanda was destroyed in the 12th century AD. After an interregnum, the British brought Western education to India, through Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), which aimed to educate an army of Indian clerks, to help the British rule. It is another story that being an intelligent people, Indians soon imbibed liberal Western ideals of liberty and equality, which eventually led to India’s independence. Going much beyond Macaulay’s remit, India, under British rule, produced many eminent doctors, engineers, social reformers, scientists, and writers, some of whom went on to become Nobel Laureates.
Despite an illustrious past, education, at all levels, is floundering in India. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the quality of school education was deficient; annually, independent agencies like ASER and PISA, found glaring shortcomings in the learning of school-going children. The Covid-19 pandemic forced all educational institutions to close down for two years, which took a dreadful toll on education. Poorer students, many of them first generation literates with no access to smart devices, suffered the most ~ a number of primary school students lost their reading-writing capabilities, and lapsed into illiteracy.
Examining Boards, throughout India, have tried to mask the fall in educational standards; more students were declared passed in Board examinations of 2022 than in earlier years, and a record number of students scored more than 90 per cent marks. Such blatant window dressing fools no one, but puts a question mark on the credibility of Board results.
The underlying cause for the rot in the education system is insufficient funding by the Government. Till today, Government schools established by the British, more than a century ago, are the backbone of our education system. Most of these schools are now floundering, with falling buildings and a huge shortage of teachers, affecting the learning of the majority of students in the country. Yet, no efforts are visible for the improvement of Government schools.
The condition of higher education is even worse, since higher education appears to have lost its purpose. Earlier, when education was restricted to the affluent, boys were sent to universities and colleges to study for being employed as clerks or officers. But with technological advances, machines have replaced humans in repetitive jobs, and hardly any employment is available for young men with traditional education, i.e., ordinary BA and B.Sc degrees. Resultantly, the great universities of yesteryears, like Calcutta University, have a large number of vacant seats at undergraduate level. Even engineering courses in run-of-the-mill institutions have no value in the job market. Not surprisingly, hardly half the seats for undergraduate engineering courses could be filled up across India.
College degrees have lost their importance in many countries. Two years after the 2008-09 meltdown, half of the college graduates in the US became unemployed or under-employed. Slowly, after the effects of the recession wore down, college degrees regained their importance, but the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college came down; from 70 per cent in 2009 to 61.8 per cent in 2021. After the Covid-19 pandemic, when the job market became unusually tight, the college degree again lost its relevance because while hiring, potential employers stopped asking for college degrees. According to a Harvard Business Review and the Burning Glass Institute estimate for the US, in the next five years, college degrees would not be required for 14 lakh jobs.
Coming back to India, despite PM Modi declaring that “hard work is more powerful than Harvard,” college education is necessary for top jobs, because it develops essential skills like analytical thinking, active learning, and complex problem solving. Consequently, college graduates with the right skillset are paid more, and employed at higher levels. This would explain why eight lakh students appear for the 16,000 IIT seats, and admissions to some Delhi colleges require 100 per cent marks in Twelfth Board. Mutatis mutandis, the IIT story is replicated in NEET. Private universities, which charge a bomb for their courses, are burgeoning, the bottom line being that students graduating from these institutions can easily land a good job. The icing on the cake is that an alumnus of IIT/ IIM can, one day, become the CEO of some top US corporate. However, outside this charmed circle, a student of ordinary means faces a cruel dilemma. After completing his school education, he has little capital, skill or experience to strike out on his own. If he goes to a second-grade college, he can only hope that after wasting several years of his life and his parent’s money, he will get some employment after graduation. This instance would show the mis-match between the education system and the job market; only because college education does not equip students for new generation jobs. The obvious solution is to link education to jobs, which would entail providing the wherewithal to colleges to offer vocational education to interested students. This is not an untried idea; one-half to nearly twothirds of students pursue vocational education in countries like Germany and Switzerland.
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 rightly aims to introduce vocational education at all levels by integrating vocational education into mainstream education, in all educational institutions, by 2030. NEP also proposes to remove the ‘hard separation’ between the vocational and academic streams and overcome the stigma attached to vocational education. Further, NEP aims to ensure universal access to quality holistic education ~ including vocational education ~ from preschool to Grade XII and every child would learn at least one vocation and be exposed to several more.
However, implementation of NEP 2020 seems to be running far behind schedule; NEP had envisaged that by 2025, at least half of the students would have vocational exposure through school and higher education. The problem in implementation of NEP appears to be of finance and resolve; the NEP document requires that 6 per cent of GDP be spent on education, while we are spending only half of that. Further, changeover to NEP would require teacher re-education, new infrastructure and a complete overhaul of the education system ~ which is easier said than achieved.
A small beginning can be made by colleges to offer courses that develop specialization in emerging fields, since industry and businesses are offering highpaying jobs for specialists in every field, who may not be college graduates e.g., horticulturists, nannies, vaccine specialists, customer marketing managers. An easily verifiable manifestation of this trend is the remuneration of drivers in Government and PSUs, who often earn more than fresh graduates. An obvious first step to popularize vocational education would be to stop lionizing higher education, and running down its alternatives.
The Government can also help by developing online courses on the pattern of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as an alternative to college enrolment, which would provide an affordable and flexible way for students to learn the latest skills, supplement their learning, and advance their career. The popularity of Coursera in the US, which has 113 million registered learners, and which adds about 5 million new learners every quarter, is a pointer to the usefulness of good online courses. The Government can also rethink its Institutes of Excellence (IoE) initiative which has hit a roadblock, with only 12 institutes (out of 20) being granted the IoE tag, and funding of Rs 3,200 crore (out of Rs10,000 crore) being utilized.
Currently, the Empowered Expert Committee for IoE is lying defunct for more than two years, making any action on IoE unlikely. Probably, the unutilized funds of Rs.6,800 crore of IoE can be used to establish good vocational colleges in all districts, and thereby kickstart vocational education.
Finally, to learn, we must understand the importance of education. As Mahatma Gandhi had said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)