Humanities student Ruby Rai scored a commendable 444 marks out of 500—a 90% score—topping this year’s Class 12 exams conducted by the education board of the northern Indian state of Bihar.
As it usually happens with such academic toppers, the media promptly arrived at her residence in Bihar’s Hajipur district last week.
When a suspicious television journalist asked Rai about her subjects, she listed them out: English, geography, music, and “prodigal science” (political science). The reporter probed further, asking her what was taught under this “prodigal science.” After a brief, embarrassed silence, Rai answered: “Cooking!“
She really had no clue.
Another Bihar prodigy, Saurabh Shresth incorrectly told reporters that aluminium is the most reactive element in Mendeleev’s able. Shresth, with an astounding 97% score, topped the science stream in this year’s Class 12 exams.
The incident highlights a situation in Asia’s third-largest economy that is far more grim than what the comical interviews depict.
India has been trying hard to make access to education easy for all. It has partially achieved this—enrollment rates at primary schools are at over 98% (pdf). However, it is yet to address a bigger concern: quality of education, and its corollary, employability of its youth.
“The priority for the Indian government has only been enrollment. The quality of education isn’t a priority at all. When learning outcomes are extremely poor and students can’t be employed, dropping out from the education system is the only option for many,” said Medha Uniyal, head, program development at the vocational training arm of Pratham, a Mumbai-based education-focused NGO.
Fuelling the economy
Under prime minister Narendra Modi’s highly-publicised “Make in India” initiative, the government has sought to showcase what India has to offer to global manufacturers. Modi himself has often met up with top business executives, inviting them to set shop in the country. But what about the massive amount of skilled manpower that such manufacturing setups would require?
For a country that supposedly is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, manpower can be the make or break factor. If it doesn’t have the requisite skilled human resource, growth cannot be sustained.
By 2050, India will have more than a billion people of working age—the highest in Asia-Pacific. And if these young Indians looking for jobs aren’t even fit for one, then there may be a lot to be worried about.
“What matters for both growth as well as employability are not years of education as much as the quality of education represented by learning outcomes and skills,” said Karthik Muralidharan, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, in one of his research papers.
Why skill is important
And skill is, indeed, India’s Achilles’ heel.
Research has shown (pdf) that cognitive skills—those that the brain uses to think, learn, read, and reason—play an important role in the economic advancement of a country, especially for developing economies.
In India, the lacuna in this area becomes manifest right from primary education. Sample this: 13.5% of Indian students (5-16 years) enrolled in school can’t read anything. Some 46% can’t read text meant for Class 2 students. Besides, some 43% of Class 8 students could not solve a simple division problem.
The problems don’t end at school-level education either.
An April 2016 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, found that only 7% of B-school grads were worth a job.
Engineering grads aren’t any different. About 600,000 engineers graduate in India every year. Of that, only 18.5% are employable, a study said in 2014 (pdf).
Here’s what the study by Aspiring Minds said:
On an average, 60% candidates lose out because of not having requisite domain skills, something they should learn in college. There is a general argument that this is because of outdated courses. This is a misnomer since the basic concepts in most of these fields have remained same over years and industry can quickly train candidates to emerging technologies if their basic concepts are clear. Industry has no further expectation from the candidate than a clear understanding of the fundamentals of the topic. Unfortunately, most students do not know the same, which is very much a part of their curriculum.
Indian education traditionally has focused on theory and grades. It is often criticised for its undue emphasis on rote learning, devoid of healthy classroom discussions and debates, let alone applied knowledge. Most often, the teachers themselves lack such practical understanding of their subjects.
This brings us to an important factor: quality of teachers and teaching.
Quality of teaching
Teachers and professors in India are often under pressure to merely complete the syllabi, leaving time for little else. If anything, teachers often don’t even show up for work.
In 2004, a group of economists from Harvard University and the World Bank studied 3,700 schools (pdf) across 20 Indian states and found that 25% teachers were absent on the day of the inspection at government-run primary schools. About 86% of schools in India are government-funded.
A World Bank report (pdf) released in 2014 says: “Hiring more teachers per student or, equivalently, reducing class size is believed to improve learning outcomes in two ways: smaller classes may allow teachers to give each student more individual attention and smaller classes can reduce the probability of disruptive students inhibiting learning.”
With crucial elements—good teachers, updated curriculum, skill development—missing, education in India has ended up more as a rite of passage than an enabling process. Passing successive levels is merely a matter of certificates and grades acquired by any means—fair or otherwise.
In fact, cheating is so rampant in states such as Bihar that parents, friends, and other relatives often go out of their way to help candidates in the process, sometimes even with the teachers’ consent.
Skill and employability are nowhere in the picture.
It is perhaps to address these issues that the Modi government unveiled a massive Skill India program in July 2015, which plans to spend Rs5,000 crore ($746 million) every year up to 2022 to provide vocational training to some 400 million young people.
The approach, though, isn’t very efficient, as Quartz has reported earlier, because many students who are placed after vocational training do not join the job, or soon return to their villages after a couple of months of working.
“…if (the situation is) not reversed quickly, we will land ourselves in a scenario of having a large number of people with degrees but not enough manpower with proficiency to meet the emerging requirement of our industrial and other sectors,” Indian president Pranab Mukherjee said in January.
For India to then continue scaling new heights of economic development, a surgical intervention in its primary and higher education systems is an imperative. And it should begin soon. Very soon.
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