Urgent Need for Reforms
Organiser New   12-Feb-2019
We have to create a sense of entrepreneurship amongst our youth so that they become job creators instead of the job seekers
Virendra Gupta
 
T here has been extensive discussion in the media on the need to carry out urgent reforms in our education policy. The Government has set up several high level committees and their reports have been subjected to thorough reviews. But we are yet to see the unveiling of a coherent new policy framework. This is evidently a very vast and complex subject and all the relevant issues need to be looked at in a comprehensive manner. However, there are few areas where quick remedial and deliverable action is possible and should be pursued on an urgent basis.
 
 
 
It is generally accepted that healthcare and education are the two highest priority areas for developing countries. India is no exception. Given the critical importance of human resources development in shaping the progress of a country in the current times, it is imperative that we optimise the benefits of higher education for our people and the nation as a whole.
 
We need to have a paradigm shift in our approach to education. Rather than being treated as a mechanical acquisition of knowledge in classrooms through books, it should become a tool for overall personality development of our students and to mould them into ‘good human beings’. In Swami Vivekananda’s view the objective of education should be character building and expansion of intellect so as to achieve “manifestation of perfection already in men.” He felt that it should be a holistic experience to enable a person to acquire self-confidence and to stand on his own feet.
 
 
 
India has a rich cultural heritage and it is important to sensitise our youth to it so that he can have a sense of pride in being Indian and fully identify with our country’s aspirations and development needs. Our youth are showing signs of increasing aggressiveness and indiscipline. In order to deal with this disturbing trend, an attempt also needs to be made to ingrain in them with the Indian values of compassion, tolerance and universal brotherhood.
 
Our current education policy is broadly a continuation of the policy enunciated under Macaulay’s watch, which was essentially designed to produce English educated clerks – “a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions...” in Macaulay’s own words —who could serve the interests of the British Empire. This was achieved through systematic denigration of our own very rich culture and underscoring the English superiority. Creativity and originality which could potentially challenge the established authority were therefore not encouraged. We need to liberate our education policy from the continuing colonial mindset and restore our past glory as a reputed global destination for higher learning.
 
At present, students are blindly rushing into enrolment for university degrees leading to an anomalous situation where even PhD holders are applying for the job of a Peon in a government office. Ironically, a large number of degree holders are not able to secure salaries commensurate with their expectations or even what are routinely available to blue collar workers. In fact, there is a need for serious introspection on what our country’s and society’s needs are. Do we really need so many graduates that the country is currently producing?
 
 
 
Those aspiring to enter universities should first be assessed for the suitability and competence to undertake a degree level programme by requisite ‘competency mapping’ tests. Those not found suitable should be encouraged to go for vocational programmes. There is an obvious need to expand the outreach of vocational training so that we can truly proceed with the mission of ‘Skilling India’- more vocational studies institutions need to be opened. Government should set up more Polytechnics offering short term 1 or 2 year courses in diverse fields such as healthcare, tourism, fisheries, renewable energy, IT based accounting, etc. where there is a huge gap between demand and supply.
 
Country’s requirements fit into a pyramid type of structure with need for a large and abundant supply of technicians and field workers at the basic level, relatively fewer numbers at supervisory intermediate level and considerably limited requirement at the top level comprising of engineers, doctors and other university degree holders. Our education system should be in sync with that requirement.
  • India should aspire to become a centre of learning for foreign students from our neighbourhood as well as other developing countries. Now about 4 million students in the world go abroad to study
  • Our students also need to be properly guided into courses which would help them secure requisite employment
 
 
We have to create a sense of entrepreneurship amongst our youth so that instead of seeking salaried jobs for themselves they become job creators. For this we would need to provide professional career counselling in High Schools and Intermediate Colleges.
 
Students also need to be properly guided into courses which would help them secure requisite employment. At the same time we need to inculcate values of ‘dignity of labour’ in our young people to dissuade them from rushing mechanically into university degrees without due consideration to their own individual capacity and more importantly future job prospects. This would be critical for requisite employment generation and inclusive growth in the country. For this some exposure to carpentry and machine work could be introduced at the school level itself.
 
We have a serious problem of plagiarism in our higher education. There is too much emphasis on ‘rote learning’ and several students rely on memorising complete model answers to standard questions (provided either by the teachers as class work or available in numerous guide books) and reproducing them verbatim in the exam answer sheets. Regrettably, this practice starts from the elementary school level itself. Small kids are expected to write well composed, grammatically correct answers in their test papers rather than being encouraged to formulate answers in their own broken language. In the West, plagiarism of any kind is considered a serious offence and could result in a scholar/student’s expulsion from the institution. The above problem can be partly addressed by permitting use of books in the exams. The open book system in due course should be expanded to include the use of internet and computers as well. It would shift focus on comprehension rather than mechanical cramming of model answers.
 
Memorising long passages may have had its relevance in the ancient times when oral tradition was the norm but its relative utility has diminished in the present times when unimaginable amount of information is available on a tiny cell phone – only a click away. Storage of information is obviously not as important today as its retrieval. We have machines to store the information for us and human interface is important in being able to access and process that information most efficiently. Our students should be assessed using that benchmark.
 
In order to reduce the work load on the students and minimise the dependence on rote learning, we should also consider compulsory introduction of semester or even trimester based assessment. Simultaneously, requisite credits should also be provided for regular monthly tests and other class assignments.
 
Our education policy should be designed to ensure optimum utilisation of the abundant creative energies of our youth rather than inhibiting them in any way. For this, it is imperative that Hindi and other vernacular languages are increasingly brought into the fold of higher learning. We must build the confidence and pride of our young people in expressing themselves even at the national stage in their own mother tongue for the most optimal output. Knowledge of English is undoubtedly useful in today’s globalised environment but it certainly does not help us to have an inferiority complex about our own languages.
 
Brain drain is a serious problem; several of our young graduates passing out from reputed colleges including IITs migrate to the West in search of greener pastures, denying the country any dividend from the investment made by it in the education of those individuals by way of massive government grants and subsidies to the institutions concerned. This anomaly needs to be rectified. Imposition of a restrictive exit policy on young people wishing to explore opportunities abroad is not an option which would sit with us comfortably. In order to deal with this problem, the government grants to universities and other institutions of higher learning could be gradually reduced and the tuition fees at universities and colleges allowed to go up and reach market driven levels with government grants thus saved to be disbursed to deserving students through bursaries and scholarships based on both merit and means. Colleges themselves could be encouraged to grant partial or full waivers of tuition fees, as in the Western Universities, to attract bright students in order to maintain the requisite academic standards.
 
Entry of private sector in the education field has made it possible for more students to access the higher education facilities. Its participation should be strengthened but rigorous monitoring of standards by the regulatory authorities is absolutely imperative to make sure that unsuspecting young people are not cheated by money sharks. At present the quality of education provided in most private colleges is quite questionable. Laboratories and other facilities are below par and they do not even maintain requisite complement of qualified and trained teaching staff. Many colleges, particularly those located in rural area, seem hardly interested in imparting proper education to their students; they are only interested in being able to show certain requisite volume of enrolment in their books in order to continue accessing government grants. No wonder, students passing out from these colleges lack even the basic comprehension of subjects pursued by them and are hardly able to find jobs despite having secured degrees.
 
India should aspire to become a centre of learning for foreign students from our neighbourhood as well as other developing countries. Even if the tuition fees are kept at moderate levels it could become an important source of foreign exchange revenue for us. Presently around 4 million students in the world go abroad to study. Pitiably, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, India does not even figure in the top ten destination countries. India has considerable potential in this field because of our cost advantages as in other services sector and we must work to secure a substantial share of the overseas student population.
 
There has been a proposal to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India. Even Niti Aayog has favourably recommended that. Around 300,000 Indian students go abroad every year at considerable foreign exchange outflow. This can be stemmed substantially if foreign university campuses were to be available within the country. In any case, increased competition would lead to improvement in the standards of higher education in the country, bringing us closer to global standards and position us better to market our opportunities on the global stage.
 
The calibre and commitment of our teaching staff at our colleges and universities is a critical factor in the quality of education available in our country and we have to pay serious attention to this aspect. Additional financial resources would doubtlessly need to be invested for this purpose. Rigorous standards need to be maintained for initial recruitment with UGC to be the sole agency for undertaking that task. Establishment of an Indian Education Service would help in this matter and that ought to be expedited. Newly appointed teachers should be provided requisite training in adult psychology, use of IT tools and other innovative teaching techniques.
 
Present policy requiring university teachers to present certain minimum number of papers at seminars and conferences before consideration of promotion to the next level does not seem to be working well. Seminars have actually turned into farcical affairs with hundreds of papers shown as presented at a single event. Quantitative benchmarking alone is not appropriate; quality of scholarship and originality of papers are perhaps more important. It is imperative that research papers are presented in open sessions before scholars and researchers from that discipline and there is a proper review mechanism on the lines of practice followed by reputed journals worldwide.
In keeping with the international practice we should allow change of subjects/courses by students in the middle of their degree programmes. Most students have very little idea of various courses on offer at the time of enrolment and thus are not able to make the right choices. This would give the much needed flexibility to them and allow them course correction midway through the programme. In our universities, course selection on offer is usually quite rigid. We should look at the global practice whereby students are offered a wide variety of courses including ones which may even be far removed from their main discipline. Cross stream exposure would help a student in developing well rounded personality which would prove critical for the success in his career.
 
At the extracurricular level, we need to pay requisite attention to character building and inculcating a sense of discipline and national integration amongst the youth. We should consider instituting a compulsory short course on moral ethics and civics at undergraduate level, passing of which would be necessary for the award of the degree. We can consider making it compulsory for university entrants to enrol in NCC or similar organisations for certain minimum period.
 (The writer recently retired from Indian Foreign Service after having served as Indian Ambassador in several countries. He regularly comments on public policy issues)