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.  

 

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