What could possibly be the downside of more children in schools?
Not too long ago, in 2001, 32 million children didn’t attend school. Then the government announced a universal education programme, or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and today enrolments have soared to about 96% — 7.1 million in 2006. There are still problems, such as dropout rates and continuous funding battles between states and the Centre, and the fact that many children go to school for the free midday meal alone. But the statistics are impressive and speak to some changing aspiration levels in this country.
That, according to some experts, is precisely the problem.
Last weekend, I travelled to Jaipur for the Rajasthan Skills and Employability Summit and the issue formed an important backdrop to discussions on vocational education and what employers want. Experts detailed a scary state of social unrest with unemployed youth feeling like they have been shut out of the Indian society that pervades their television sets, magazines, advertisements.
They turn to education as their great hope, their equalizer.
“There were 40 million kids once out of school. Now there are four million,” said NIIT chairman and co-founder Rajendra S. Pawar. “Can you imagine the hell that will break loose with expectation?”
If you’re cringing at his words and my rendering of them, I understand — I did the same at first. Don’t we want them to dream?
But stay with me and his thought. The problem is that the first-generation learners, if they complete class VIII or even all the way through class XII, are going to learn something millions of Indians already know, at least the three-quarters of them deemed unemployable: Their education is worthless. If India’s approach to schooling does not keep up with their expectations and industry’s, then we really are heading for a crisis.
We have expanded the users of our education system, but we have not expanded that same system’s utility. And so it has become necessary for graduates to go on to finishing schools, to training academies, to certification courses run by the private sector. And then we slip into this cycle of funding education, then funding courses to fix the education, then funding skills development, then funding training to keep up with technology. It’s just not an expense for taxpayers but also for the poor Indian, the one whose livelihood we are all trying to improve.
In my 22 February column, “Develop skills and minds,” I wrote “Shouldn’t a liberal arts background at least instil the ability to input, analyse and produce — the very basics of a job? ...the 11th Plan’s spending must inspire Indians to embrace more than degrees or skills — but true lifelong learning.” (See www.livemint.com/skills.htm)
So I believe in lifelong learning — but not spending on learning that doesn’t work and actually keeps one from working. Consider the semantics. How do Indians refer to their degrees? Not as education — but their qualification.
“Qualifications are not why you are in a job,” said S. Chandrasekhar, head of human resources for Capgemini Consulting India Pvt. Ltd. “Skills are. It is better to be the best sweeper than to be a mediocre engineer.”
But try telling that to someone who could have gotten the job of sweeper without any degree or diploma.
“I still believe the majority of the country is struggling with the change of vocation,” continued Chandrasekhar. “We have a clerical mindset, to get a secure job, the air-conditioned office..”
Indeed, the buzzword of this year has been jobs: jobs for land, job centres, job training, job hotlines.
Our promise of “jobs” is a part of the problem. Remember what we used to call it, that question my farming or contracting (read unemployed) cousins and uncles all dread: “So are you in service?”
Here’s my replacement: purpose.
Let’s promise purpose and stop separating education, training, vocations and “jobs”. Instead of letting first-generation learners enter the absurd pressure of arts versus science, we need to have a conversation, say by class VI, when dropout tendencies begin. It can be simple questions, such as “What do you like to do?” And then a skill can be imparted, alongside Tagore and civics, which I fear are often shafted.
Perhaps the divide between training and education made sense when only rich people went to school. But as the government and industry begin their massive roll-out of training institutes and model schools and guarantees of jobs and education, they need to send a message that all of the above go hand in hand. All are worthy.
And let’s not get bogged down in technicalities ourselves. In a nation of more than one billion, many of whom have come to see a degree as their ticket out and up, what stops us from expanding the idea of a bachelor’s degree to the so-called vocations? If we can offer it to astrologers, we can surely do the same for plumbers.
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