On June 26, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order which ensures that future hiring for the government in America would prefer people with skills rather than degrees. This just might be the first concrete step taken in the direction of reducing the importance of useless degrees that have fuelled a market boom in formal education.
Come to think of it, in India, while the real price of every other economic good — TV, cellphones, cars, computers, shirts, pizzas — has come down dramatically in the past twenty years, the cost of education has only gone up. Tuition has increased more than five times. Books have become equally costlier. To justify such high costs, formal education has become more focused on providing frills to the students, including online learning. Schools and colleges advertise their horse riding and swimming facilities rather than their scholastic achievements, to attract fresh students.
The government in India does its bit for ensuring a privileged status to higher education by insisting on hiring its top officers only from among degree holders who have gone through a scholastic test and evaluated by retired professors who have always led a cloistered existence. No experience or ability in the field, for example, can get a constable moved to the officer cadre in the police forces unless they pass a scholastic exam which asks questions like: why did the Harappan civilisation decline? No rifleman in India can become an officer unless he clears an analogous academic test. It is another matter that every Chief Constable or equivalent in the UK or US starts as a constable and every Chief of the Army Staff in Israel begins his service as a rifleman.
The intelligent within society create the ground to justify the uselessly ‘degreed’ by insisting that the proper task of education is not to provide skills but a degree. As if having a degree makes a person somewhat superior to those who merely work. The situation has become so bad that even the young of India seem to have internalised a culture of non-work. In a case of which I have personal knowledge, two students ran away from their internship. This was from a top-ranking university which worked hard to set up partnerships with industry but, which shall remain unnamed, for reasons of my security. Their employers complained to the head of the department and promised never to take any more students for internship or employment. “They were making us work,” the runaway students told the official inquiry committee, expecting a sympathetic response. And, they were absolved. Then there was this student, duly degreed, who left three permanent positions in different colleges for the same reason. “They make me work,” he explained to me. “They have no respect for intellectuals,” was his added grouse.
The fact is that the shoddiness of education is the most dangerous problem facing India today. Shoddiness in education poses a threat to our democracy, creates the ground for people to accept the equivalent of snake oil, magnetic cure and magical remedies as the solution for our economic, social and political ills. The Covid pandemic, the border crisis with China and Pakistan, in contrast are child’s play. The pandemic will eventually subside; the border crisis will resolve itself. The increasing uselessness of the Indian system of education will remain unless we use the opportunity given to us by the forced closure of the educational system of India to force a massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools and colleges.
A little less than one year is all we have got. After that, the pressure for resuming normalcy will become too great to bring about any change and we will go back to reproducing a self-consuming shoddiness. Our teachers will continue to be good only for Census operations and elections; gross enrolment ratios will shoot up even as our faculty and researchers produce a lot of glop in the form of PhDs and irreproducible and unusable academic papers. Already, in 2018-19, millions of Indian students wanting to escape mind-numbing mediocrity, had gone out of the country, taking with them, according to the RBI and MEA data, about $7 billion. This is about a quarter of the total amount of money spent by various governments in India to fund all education.
The greatest problem today is that we have allowed scholastic standards to slide to disgraceful levels. ‘Our students don’t know how to comprehend English’ is a common excuse. The fact is that our students are poor in comprehending any piece of knowledge, in any language. ‘Our education system is geared towards ensuring social justice and not scholastic standards’ is another common excuse which tries to lay the burden of scholastic performance on those who come through the quota system. The fact is that an outcome survey by the University of Stanford for the AICTE and the Government in India in 2017-18, indicated that those from quotas showed the greatest improvement in learning. Kamlesh Narwana’s excellent survey of outcomes in a small town in Punjab in 2018-19, too indicates that college students from the reserved category far outshine their peers despite being forced to work while studying.
The most popular of all excuses is the absence of government funding. What I would like to point out is that funding higher education is not a problem anymore, the stranglehold of bureaucracies is. The MHRD controls the UGC, AICTE etc. These, in turn, control the universities which control the colleges, which in turn control the teachers, who in turn control nothing — neither the content of what they teach, nor the manner in which they can evaluate their own students. The emasculation of the teacher is complete. It is responsible for the massive scholastic decay in the educational system.
Removing the teacher as a stakeholder in ensuring quality has been disastrous. All that it has meant is producing a system in which no one has any stake in anything. Don’t get me wrong. Bureaucrats tried to connect teacher performance with student performance in exams. Since then, an inordinately large number of students have been scoring humongous marks — disproportionate to their abilities. The UGC tried to link faculty performance with research output. That made India the world leader in journals willing to publish any glop for a price. The one thing that no one has tried till now is to allow the teacher to have a moral connection with the students and make the teacher responsible for the learning that students acquire.
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