A New Emergency: Is India In the Middle of a Massive Education Crisis?


A New Emergency: Is India In the Middle of a Massive Education Crisis?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Let’s start with a few enlightening statistics.

1. Over half of Indian students will not have skills for 21st century jobs: UNICEF

2. Over 80 per cent Indian engineers are unemployable: Aspiring Minds

3. Make that 94 per cent, sorry: NASSCOM

4. 56 per cent of Class 8 students can’t do basic maths and 27 per cent can’t read: Annual Status of Education Report, Pratham

Dang! That’s quite a blow to the carefully cultivated image of Indian students being one of the most hardworking and studious lot in the world. I suppose mugging up isn’t a skill that’s worth too much in the real world.

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. The country is facing an education crisis. Which goes nicely with all the other ones — environmental, economic, communal, health, political… One more and I think we’ll be able to complete a full set. You could even make a Butterfly Effect-esque argument saying if we solve education, all the other problems get solved over time, but let’s aim for small mercies.

So, just how bad are things? To answer — ask yourself how much of what you learnt in school (especially in the senior years) is useful to you today — professionally or personally. Ta-dah, there’s Problem #1. As the world and technology rapidly change, there’s a good chance that a kid enrolling in lower kindergarten today might end up taking a job that doesn’t even exist right now. Heck, there’s a good chance that jobs that are hot today (“social media manager”, anyone?) will be obsolete or automated within a decade. Currently, we are saddled with an education system that is a vestige of Britain’s industrial revolution, which was meant to churn out efficient workers, not innovative thinkers. Guess what we might need more of in the 21st century.

Granted, we can’t teach what’s not out there. But we can teach the students of today the skills to best deal with this future — soft skills, creativity, basic coding… Shock, horror, all the things we were supposed to stay away from to have a “bright future”. Oh, while we’re at it, throw in some empathy and financial skills.

These problems are nothing new and the acceptance of pedagogies like IB, Montessori and Project-Based Learning in India shows that parents are aware. However, right now, this style of progressive learning is restricted to a few elite institutions (whose students, let’s face it, will “make it” anyway by virtue of being born into privilege). However, this education is unaffordable to the poor and the “middle class”, which form more than 70 per cent of the population.

Currently, we are saddled with an education system that is a vestige of Britain’s industrial revolution, which was meant to churn out efficient workers, not innovative thinkers.

A simplified version of the broad objectives of such education, emphasising real-world skills and projects would help government school students and might even amp up the love for learning once menial rote learning is relegated.

For all this, though, we assume we have a willing government. LOL. The only school “reform” of late has been shoving down more nationalism down young throats. As the Italian government mandates inclusion of climate change in school curricula, ours goes and removes chapters on the environment. What’s next? Adding properous Gujarati businessmen to our list of national heroes?

Education also suffers from over-regulation in India. There’s no doubt that the sector needs checks and balances to make sure people seeking profit don’t run amok, but current rules stifle even the most well-meaning of potential educators, such as needing a convoluted system of trusts. Loosening up the sector a little bit and allowing private participation will do the sector some good – from allowing the right players an opportunity to invest, ensuring teachers are paid better, and offer solutions across price points. By overly stymieing private participation, we only get statistics like the one at the top of this article. Public-private partnerships might not be the silver bullet, but it’ll be a darn sight better than where we are now.

The next problem with respect to education in India is the supply chain: School to college to higher education to employer is treated more like a logistics problem. Metrics in this chain become ranks, percentage placed or highest CTC – the wrong goalposts to gauge education by. Again, ask any HR manager how much 10th standard grades really matter. Or better yet, your manager. And sadly, industry, the last in this chain, are saddled with employees who are sub-par. And so industry itself must play more of a part in education – especially right before employment. I don’t mean the perfunctory guest lecture, but actual collaboration with institutes and departments. How great would it be if the Indian startup sector actually worked with the HRD ministry to formulate a module for engineering colleges, given the myriad technical and non-technical skills it needs? In the long run, it’s going to help companies and the economy – not to mention the students. Heck, just imagine how much time and money the IT / ITeS sector would save if it offloaded the mandatory “coding crash course” that they make new recruits do, to the colleges itself!

Yes, all the above sounds fanciful. But a guy can dream and hope that kids get education for life in classrooms rather than on WhatsApp. Cooperation between multiple several leviathan agencies is never going to be easy – badge-hungry society, a lethargic government, and an education system averse to change other than glorifying myths. Sadly, in the process, two of the most important stakeholders in the equation – students and the economy – are only going to suffer.