Monday, September 01, 2014

Education's End: An Indian Perspective

I have been touring India for last three weeks promoting an education aimed at bridging the education-to-employment gap. This is a persistent problem that we notice in the West: That universities are all designed to serve themselves, promoting abilities and attitudes in their best students which serve their own ends, best students do best becoming an university professor. The businesses, whose requirements are different, often have to retrain the people they require, and it is very difficult for them to make their voice heard in the curriculum and teaching in the university. One of the solutions to this problem, therefore, is project-based learning, where the employers and educators are brought together in a common endeavour, where practical work counts as much towards the degree as academic excellence. 

At the outset, India has this problem of the severest kind. Every employer seems to complain that they are not able to find people they need. The education institutions are often sub-par, afflicted by a lack of sense of purpose and of academic culture, and instead promote an opportunistic environment. The economy as a whole, as it grows and its requirement of skilled labour increases manifold, is suffering from rising costs (partly due to labour shortage, partly due to inflation) - which makes it uncompetitive in the world market. It is the education-to-employment gap of the severest kind which is creating a problem.

However, one thing that may appear slightly odd in the conversations I am having is that employers are often not complaining about the students' 'hard skills'. There are some who mentioned that the students they recruit can't code, but these observations are rather rare. Most people, in industries as diverse as healthcare, hospitality, IT, Financial Services and Retail, complained about the students' soft skills, and more specifically about their confidence, initiative, communication and ability to handle customers. In fact, several employers thought that their technical abilities are good to execellent.

While talking to the institutions, one gets the sense that there is a growing recognition of the problem. Many institutions have an elaborate employability programme, where outside trainers, often with business experience, are brought in to offer elaborate training on the areas employers mention all often - communication, presentation, confidence etc. In fact, the idea of 'finishing school' is very popular and they are sprouting up everywhere, and the investors and the educators are very keen on them (despite 'finishing schools' being rather out-of-date and prudish concept, often laughed at in Europe). But it is common to have academic lectures in India focused on what dress to wear for an interview. The educational institutions are eager to engage with employers in the most part, lapping up any opportunity to get a guest lecture or invite them over for campus interview, and picking up every scrap of suggestion made by employers for inclusion in the curriculum or teaching.

Seen from this perspective, there is indeed an employment-to-education disconnect but that may not be for want of trying. Educators may get blamed for students' lack of abilities, but one may reasonably suspect the problem may be more complex than the educators waking up to the job market realities. Public or private, the persistent obsession of the educators is to make their graduates market ready, and the employer is almost always invited in the education process.

Considering all this, I wonder whether I am trying to fix something which is not broken. I have this niggling suspicion, and it is only a hunch at this time, that Indian students are doing badly not because the employers are not focused on the requirements of the jobs, but rather because they are overtly and exclusively so. Carrying on the colonial legacy where students went to school only to get a job in the British Raj, education in India has a clear, commercial goal: Either it is a job for boys, or marriage for girls (which is commercial in the sense that education gets a higher earning groom) - and even marriage and bigger dowry for boys too. In fact, the education is therefore so narrowly focused that all those soft skill problems come up. The soft skills are unlikely to get solved in a few classroom sessions thrown into the mix - the very endeavour shows how inadequate the understanding of the problem is among the employers - and it is not just bad teaching (though there is a lot of it) but the entire design of the education system that leads to the problem that India has.

Project-based Learning indeed brings about some of the soft skill areas to the fore, but there is a bigger issue to tackle, which is of motivation and engagement. When people are inclined to buy degrees (metaphorically, though there are some instances of the literal), learning itself, whichever is the format, is bound to be undermined. The only thing that the students need to learn, or they think they need to learn, is speaking in English language, and that gets them a good job: When the educational ends are so clearly defined, project-based learning or any such intervention only makes a marginal difference.

In fact, a better education, even in terms of employability of the graduates, may rather be constructed by redefining what education is for and thereby employing different motivations and engagements in the education process. An indirect approach, based around engagement, civic mindedness and exploration, rather than a curriculum constructed around job-specific skill and a teaching devoid of everything except a focus on the end - an employment - will perhaps better serve Indian students. The focus on employment may just be the cause of the problem of employability; focus on hard skills is part of that problem. Education, by becoming education, can serve itself better - and also benefit the employers.  

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

'A Just Society By Just Means'

India was to be, as Nehru told AndrĂ© Malraux, 'a just society by just means'. 

67 years on, as we seek to redefine India, we should return this vision. It is the time to make a fresh start perhaps, as we haven't achieved a just society and lost sight of the just means - and indeed, any appetite, as it seems, for such grand imagination. But that should precisely be the reason to reimagine!

Ideas such as these are often laughed at, as rhetoric that means nothing. Yet, here is a poor illiterate country, which instituted a liberal democracy, and managed to hold together despite its diversity and difference. One must be conscious of its many failings, but this should not undermine what India has achieved. The current ruling generation, which has seen none of the privations of colonialism nor made any sacrifices, may want to mock the struggles Indians waged, but such ignorance can only lead to a return of history and continued dependence. Ideas such as these, successful or not, can liberate, make us think and inspire us to imagine again.

Indeed, such visions are imprecise. One can argue endlessly about the meaning of justice. These statements are devoid of details, and it does not tell us what would constitute 'just means'. However, Nehru was, justifiably, not prescribing a way, but was laying out a vision. That we may even expect him to tell us everything, might sufficiently explain why we failed to achieve the aim. It was an invitation to us to imagine, to be just ourselves, in our private lives as well as with our social selves. This is an invitation we must belatedly pick up.

India's glory lies in its future rather than in the past: The best days are still ahead of us. It may perhaps be by attaining the founding vision, a just society by just means, lifting ourselves up from the poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness, we can attain our greatest goal, a dignified life for all citizens. To do this, in the face of all our constraints, would be a great achievement of statecraft.

Sadly, our failure is not one of imagination, though it may seem to be so at this moment. It was, rather, our lack of pride, our acceptance of a fake failure and meek surrender to some alien ideas as it was preached to us. It is through this, the acceptance that we failed because we couldn't build a consumer economy, we were persuaded to abdicate the search for a just society or just means. We were told that we had done well with electoral democracy, which was the mere first step, and failed in everything else. And, we were told not to imagine any more but subjugate ourselves to ideas imported from elsewhere or from an imaginary past.

But this is not the road to redemption, but an invitation to put the clock back and forget - and busy ourselves in the chores of daily life without any pretension to imagine the future. And, indeed, this means abandoning hope - the hope that makes any nation great - and slumping into self-serving ambitions that extend not beyond the paycheck. And, together sink in the acceptance of our inferior existence in the universe, limited by the aspirations and ideas of the others, a mere cog in the wheel of history and not its designers. This pathetic abandonment of the grand vision of India is not merely a failure of will, but a betrayal of freedom in itself, because, as in Nehru's vision, India was to be beacon of freedom from colonialism and its attendant values.

Which still dominate us, in new forms, affecting our desires, values and senses of self. Only the will, the courage, to imagine again, would free us from our 'self-imposed immaturity' (as in Kant). Dare to imagine should become the new mantra for new India, and we should return to the unfinished job of creating a just society by just means.



 


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