Indian education sector needs urgent reforms to stay relevant

Unfortunately, the country is too preoccupied with issues such as love jihad, gau raksha and singing Vande Mataram in schools.

 |  5-minute read |   11-09-2017
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Machines are now performing many intricate cognitive tasks that were previously reserved for humans. As mentioned in this column earlier, the new industrial revolution is making a broad swath of old jobs disappear with lightning speed while creating many new jobs that would require different skill sets.

In India, where one million people are joining the labour force every month - with near zero new job creation (current rate of job creation is about one lakh jobs per year) - we are perhaps staring at an imminent catastrophe. To avoid such a horrendous eventuality, our education sector has to rise up to the occasion and develop new skills on a war footing.

But skill development in the current machine age, with its high rate of knowledge obsolescence, is a completely different ballgame. First, it has to be a continuous process at all levels and for every profession. Second, the continuous process of skill development must keep all organisations into a permanent state of transition. This in turn demands that every organisation is able to constantly reorganise its human and other resources.

Paul Michelman, editor-in- chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, recently wrote, "It will be a time of disintermediation both within and between organisations. Layers of management will fall, the need for centralised systems and trusted go-between will dissipate, if not disappear."

It is obvious that disappearance of centralised systems, particularly when it comes to a notoriously bureaucratised sector such as education, is going to be a very painful and fiercely contested process. That, however, cannot be a justification for inaction. Sadly, the Narendra Modi government has already wasted three precious years without making any attempt to reform our moribund education system. By now the country should have been engaged in intense debates on how to transform the education sector and come up with at least a few innovative models, which could have set the ball rolling for a total transformation of the system. Alas, the country is primarily preoccupied with nonsensical issues such as love jihad, gau raksha and singing Vande Mataram in schools.

The government has miserably failed in putting forward a developmental agenda for our education sector.

schools690_091117123923.jpgThe education sector has to help develop new skills on a war footing.

Unlike in the past, policymakers today have the unique advantage of using technology for having a national dialogue and listening to all sections of the population. Wisdom of the crowd can do wonders in finding effective and out-of- the-box solutions to our problems in every sector, including education. This only requires a sincere desire to receive such wisdom. If a company such as GE can crowdsource innovative solutions and implement them so effectively, why can't a government do it? It is time to realise that total dependence on babus to bring about radical changes can serve no purpose, other than procrastination.

In a paradigm-shifting environment, the government must show the guts to initiate a national dialogue on education reforms by raising issues that political parties across the divide may not have much appetite to discuss.

For example, is there any relevance for centralised bodies such as secondary education boards, AICTE and UGC? Can standardised curricula, examination and evaluation serve any useful purpose anymore at a time when high premium is attached to an individual's ability for 'creative deviation' and out-of- the-box thinking? How can we make knowledge a direct input to the production process before it becomes obsolete? When a reputed international consulting firm such as Ernst & Young removes qualification as one of its essential criteria for recruitment, does it not indicate diminishing value of traditionally "produced" degrees and certificates? Do schools, colleges and universities need to appoint full-time subject teachers to offer high-quality education? The list of questions can be endless.

In the currently unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution in which the society is shifting from mass production to mass customisation, instead of promoting rote learning, the teaching-learning models must focus on how to develop questioning minds, creativity and application of divergent and convergent thinking for actual problem solving.

In this context, one feels that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can very effectively use his regular radio talk, Mann Ki Baat, to create awareness about the need for developing inquisitive minds, rather than tell his listeners how to prepare for examinations. Such a mindset is critical in a world where his young listeners are going to live and work.

Despite a huge number of our totally or functionally illiterate people, the future of India is still not all about gloom and doom. The disruptive technologies of the current revolution are creating huge opportunities for providing quality education to everyone.

Converting our potential demographic disaster to a real dividend is certainly achievable. Like Uber, Airbnb, Alibaba, which have become global leaders in no time without even owning a taxi, hotel or retail space, in the education sector, organisations such as Khan Academy, Udacity and Coursera are now offering quality education. This often comes free or at a ridiculously low price to millions of people all over the world.

Neither these organisations have any sprawling campus, nor do they have highly paid faculty on their rolls. With India's much acclaimed technological prowess and entrepreneurial talent there is no reason why we cannot provide world-class education to our citizens and thus quickly become a leader in a fast-emerging knowledge and innovation driven global economy.

Also read: Beauty matters: Why Durga feels very much at home in a Jawed Habib salon


Abhijit Bhattacharya Abhijit Bhattacharya @b_abhijit

Trying to create entrepreneurs capable of solving unknown problems of tomorrow using technologies that are yet to be invented.

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