Looking Ahead: Education (Academics and a lot more…)

India is likely to face huge skill gaps in some job categories over the next 20 years.

Akrita Reyar

The biggest dream that any parent in India fosters is that his child will excel in academics, get 90% plus marks in boards, crack PMT, JEE or CAT and become a doctor, engineer or a high-flying executive. In more recent times, becoming a reality show star is not too bad an ambition either!

While we need to improve the quality of our academic education, we also need to stop obsessing with academics alone. Additionally, what we must do is to impart that education which builds the child’s confidence, exploits his potential fully and provides skill sets for employability.

A recent ASSOCHAM study puts forth that the Indian economy will create 87.37 million jobs by 2015 but only 25% of graduates would have the necessary skills for immediate employment. The future scenario, if we look at these reports, is not very encouraging. The World Economic Forum’s report on talent migration says that India will face huge skill gaps in some job categories over the next 20 years due to low employability and this would put brakes on economic growth.

To improve the quality of education, we need to improve the quality of teachers. For this, they need to be properly trained and given decent remuneration.

I remember the famous nuclear scientist and man behind Pokharan I, Dr Raja Rammana, telling me that the best education he got was in his village because of the high level of commitment of his teachers. Our old rural system of education, which drew heavily in philosophy from gurkuls, was ideal as students bonded intensely with teachers and thus learnt better.

Of course, modern curriculum needs to be introduced, but we need to restore respect for the institution of teaching and our teachers. The ‘Right to Education’ is a move in the right direction. What needs to be ensured is that quality is not compromised.

Good money is particularly important at the university level, at research schools and specialized institutions. It is horrifying to learn that 1/3rd of the faculty positions at IITs are lying vacant!

University funding is another important issue. We can learn particularly from India’s most famous and well run university in all of our history – Nalanda. According to Chinese historian Fa-hien, not only did the Guptas patronize the great university of Nalanda, the institute also owned huge funding sources.

As per the accounts of students of Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing the institute – which had on its rolls 8500 students and 1510 members of faculty, where 100 discourses were delivered daily with 100% attendance - owned huge tracts of land in 100 villages, from which it drew handsome income.

It had set exacting benchmarks when it came to hiring teachers. It is believed to have on board some of the best minds like Silabhadra, the president of the university, Arya Deva, Asanga, Vasubadhu and Dinnaga, some of whom were the founders of philosophical systems. The greatest artists of the period - Dhiman and Bitpalo – were hired to train students in making images of stone and bronze. No wonder the university was magnet for the most talented from within India and also countries like Korea, Mongolia, Japan, China, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. The university offered courses like humanities, arts and crafts, religion, philosophy, and medicine.

Why am I drawing an analogy with Nalanda and not Harvard? You may call it a spectacular coincidence, but there is an astonishing similarity in the set up of these two universities!

Besides academics, music, art, sports etc. need to be given due importance. In foreign countries music and culture are treated with extreme seriousness. Despite our wealthy music tradition of various gharanas, there is no systemized method of training, barring courses offered by a few universities. Ours remains a personality or family driven method of teaching, where art forms thrive or decay depending on the fate of limited individuals. Some valiant efforts have been made by Pt Birju Maharaj, Madhvi Mudgal or late Protima Bedi to start their own schools, but they are at a fairly micro scale.

The western classical music scenario of Europe is probably the best example to cite when it comes to cultivating talent, methodical training and providing sufficient concert opportunities to make abundant money, thus keeping the best musicians in ample affluence. The entire continent is dotted by music conservatories providing the best of training and children get admitted at a very tender age. That is why a small city like Leipzig can boast of having the most sought after music conservatory, which has had faculty members like Felix Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann.

The European model has been found to be so good that it has been adopted by the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and now China.

Meanwhile, China has shown the way in terms of sports training. From a time when it never figured in the top 10 of medals chart, it has increased its Olympics haul to 100 at Beijing, posing a serious challenge to the US. It has government funded sports academies that pick children at a very young age and then train them with military precision.

In India, we need to ensure that other sports are also properly funded, because, as of now, the condition of most sports besides cricket is pretty pathetic. This problem can be overcome by encouraging sponsorship by corporates. If private players are reluctant, PSUs can be asked.

The most important education however comes from the child’s immediate environment - his mother, family and other guardians. An enlightened upbringing plays possibly the most important role.

The combined formal and informal education systems armour the child with the learning that he requires to fend for himself and conduct his life in a way that is upright and dignified.

As a famous saying goes, “An educational system isn`t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn`t teach them how to make a life."

(This piece on Education is part of the Looking Ahead series.)

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