My Column in the DNA, on the 17th of October
A few years ago I was on the interview panel of a leading Indian University that had just launched an honours degree programme in Economics. We, me and another professor, were supposed to interview students who had just finished their 12th and evaluate their suitability for this prestigious programme. These were students from all across India; they had scored high percentage in the higher secondary exams and had cleared the university entrance exams with flying colours. So, one expected invigorating interview sessions with the them. We began by asking simple questions: What is the full form of GDP and what does it mean?
Or what is inflation and what does five per cent growth in inflation mean? Most students were flummoxed by these simplest of queries, and we were perplexed because these youngsters averaged over 85 per cent in their class XII board exams. We discussed among ourselves and decided to lower the bar with such questions like what is the full form of RBI; what is the full form of SBI. But these too met with the same response – blank stares. Or, when the student was street smart then a furtive glance around the room, followed by a look up to the skies, a look down and the classic line “it is on the tip of my tongue, I will get it” … and then a few seconds later “can you give me a hint?”. And so it continued. Finally, we began asking questions that were, what we defined as, sitters: Who is the Finance Minister of India (in those days it was Pranab Mukherjee).
And, we had a list of such questions that anyone should be able to crack. And then a candidate walked in with academic excellence of 90 per cent. He had been on the school hockey team, took part in extra-curricular activities, had great marks in the entrance test. We asked him: Who is the former Finance Minister of India who is also the current Prime Minister? He looked at us and said, “But that is not in my syllabus but I think it is a lady, her name begins with P”.
The co-examiner and I looked at each other, neither of us could fathom who the candidate was speaking about. Our confusion must have been evident, because the candidate helpfully added “she usually has her head covered”. We looked at each other and ventured “you mean Pratibhatai Patil, the President?”. The candidate beamed and said “same difference”.
This story may seem farfetched, but it is not. For the last decade I have been a visiting faculty for media-related subjects at the University of Mumbai. Some of the answers at the university level seem as if they are from the film Munnabhai. ‘Sonia Gandhi is the daughter of Indira Gandhi and grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’, is a routine answer. Another standard response is that Hindi is the mother tongue of all Hindus, all other religions speak other languages. Or, another favourite ‘educated people read English news, illiterate people read regional newspapers’ an answer that never fails to get examiners to burst into peals of laughter while marking the answer papers. I have heard professors who correct answer papers for other subjects complain about such ‘innovative’ answers. Sometimes, when the answer is not unique, but written by a series of students, we fear that this was what they had been taught.
There is a problem with education in India. Our graduates know very little. And whatever little they know is usually wrong. Talk to any recruiter and you will hear horror stories of how difficult it is to find entry-level candidates who can walk and talk at the same time. And, if you think that this is just a problem facing the Humanities, it is worse in Engineering. Many private engineering colleges have an unwritten rule instructing teachers that they cannot fail students for lack of knowledge. In fact, given that employers only choose to even interview students who have scored a first class, the mandate in many of these colleges is to ensure that maximum number of students score a first class.
As a result many IT companies that recruit from these institutes end up having to make students take exams that clarify the basics and then spend a considerable amount of time and energy training these ‘first class graduates’ so that they are able to perform the most mundane of activities. The scenario is not very different in Management programmes either. And, now with professional courses coming into the picture, the scenario has become even more muddied.
There are courses that sound great, even from an employer’s perspective, but there are very few teachers who can be pressed into service. For example, a BSc in Biochemistry cannot really be taught by Biology and Chemistry professors but that’s what is happening now. It needs to be taught by specialists.
In many of these cases, students are the first generation in their families seeking higher education. And, they have dreams of a bright future. Their parent mortgage land and homes to ensure their children have the advantage of a good education. And, the system provides them with a degree that, more often than not, is not worth the paper it is printed on.
As Einstein once said: “The only thing interfering with my learning is my education.” And this has come to pass in India. What we need is a relook at the system of higher education. There are professions that need skills and not degrees. And these skills need to be constantly updated. Academia is also required, but its application is different it is meant to be a quest for knowledge. In conflating the two what India has is the worst of all possible worlds lack of excellence in academia and lack of skills and employability in candidates. The solution, possibly, is to look at these as separate entities and aim for excellence in both.