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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The easy way out: the plight of Higher Education in India

I have been spending time working at an engineering college (as they call them in India) named PITS (Facebook Page) in Thanjavur (my hometown) in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. I have been helping out in Technology, setting up an Incubation cell and a Placement cell. Here, I get a chance to observe closely the spirit, behavior and attitude of the students as they slowly reach their final year. Tamil Nadu has about 455 registered engineering colleges. Together they churn out almost 25,000 - 30,000 new engineering graduates every year.

After spending more than a year near the academic folk (I'd like to call them that, as they are entirely different - just as geeks and marketing guys and management gurus and medicos differ from each other), there is a lot I have understood about the how & why behind the failure and success of the society I live amidst.

Under the current system, the students reach either Polytechnic institutes or Engineering colleges without any hint of a career plan. A few consult relatives or senior family friends who offer some early advice. Parents believe in populist propaganda and succumb to peer pressure, at times, forcing their children to join Engineering courses in which the children have absolutely no interest. It is a wide misconception that Engineering and Medicine are fields that give one an opportunity to easily find a vocation. As decisions are made on poor input or lack of any input of how to choose a career - the result is left to fate rather than their own preferences and interests. This, at that time, seems to be the easy way out. It is only much later that many realize their mistakes.

Fundamental education in India has been deteriorating over the last three decades. Teaching in Schools (K-14) is a profession nowadays chosen only by those who find it inconvenient or impossible to find the one in the Industry. The testing, rating and evaluation system for school students in India is purely text based. In rural and semi-urban areas, students are trained to become memory devices for textbooks while their capacity to think out of the box and solve problems remains unattended. Communication is often in their mother tongue even if the medium of instruction is officially English. Despite English playing the role of a unifying language for India - especially North and South India, too few Teachers can speak the language fluently. This is true even of privately funded schools. No one bothers to better Language and Spoken Language at this level as it involves a lot of effort. Instead, they leave the issue to providence - the easy way out.

Students, while entering engineering, have already gone through a rigorous regimen of textual training that ensures that their analytical skills, out-of-the-box thinking skills are replaced by text in memory. Recall becomes an easier alternative to on-the-spot analysis and problem-solving. This significantly hampers their ability to understand concepts. Schedules during their 10th Standard and 12th Standard (or Pre-University in some states) are hectic. They stay in wait for joining Higher Education institutions believing that this would let them escape from hectic schedules - hoping that this is an easy way out.

When these students enter Engineering Institutions, few retain their problem solving skills and analytical skills. As Indian society is extremely protectionist, rural and semi-urban students suffer from lack of freedom and the ability to take decisions themselves to gradually mature. When they enter Engineering Institutions, they have an option to be away from their protectionist family with lesser restrictions for a long period of time. The first thing they seek is freedom from the protectionist attitude. Most education for Indian children are sponsored by their parents. Hence the children themselves have little understanding of how important it is for them to perform in their courses.

Spoon-feeding is extremely common especially in education in South India. Students are never encouraged to find solutions themselves unless they do so of their own volition. Intensive Training for Engineering Entrance Examinations and IIT-JEE is done by Institutes most of which leave no room for original thinking. This kind of "conditioning" is the easier way out rather than teach the same students to think for themselves and find their own skills.

When these students reach an Engineering Institution, the challenges faced by the Professors are humungous. As students have already come in without much training in English comprehension, writing and speaking -- this becomes a function of the Engineering Institution. Lacking adequate knowledge of English, which is the most common medium of instruction, students fair poorly. Too much time needs to be devoted to teaching them the medium of instruction.

Most students have little knowledge of the plight their parents face in paying for their education. Education inflation has been a global phenomenon  and has had a similar impact in India. The cost of education and therefore fees to be paid by the student for Engineering education is between Rs.300,000 and Rs.750,000. This is almost always paid by the parents without any terms of returning the financing. Beyond this many privately funded institutions require capitation fees which can easily be Rs.1,000,000 or several times higher depending on the Institution. When students do not take responsibility for the finances and do not try to help themselves and their own family by taking campus jobs or running a small firm, they take the easy way out.

Students spend their time without attempting to concentrate on their studies. Having not been taught the fundamentals well, the students frequently suffer from being unable to understand Basic Engineering concepts. The medium of instruction also becomes a huge turn-off. Further, the staff in Engineering Institutions come from the same school of thought as those teaching in Primary, High and Higher secondary schools. Most teachers lack interest in the actual task of teaching. They too prefer the easy way out. They'd rather let the students decide their fate themselves rather than find new ways of teaching. Some of their reservations are because of the failures they have met while experimenting newer techniques in the past.

Students seldom bother about their future until the end of their course. This is usually 4 or 5 years depending on the course taken. They end up unprepared to face job interviews and reality. Their last minute dash over the last 3 months of their education is definitely not enough to help them. Industrial companies and Information Technology majors in India spend at least 6 more months training shortlisted candidates and filtering them for a second time after their recruitment processes. Many, who lack communication skills, creative thinking, verbal reasoning and analytical reasoning skills end up being unable to get a job. The result is frustration for themselves and their parents who funded their education.

Worse yet, Parents discourage their children to participate in sports, technical, non-technical and cultural competitions due to several reservations. They believe that the period spent in earning the graduate degree is yet another time for adding more textual memory. IBM's 'Watson' too might detest such an expectation. The resultant is unhappy individuals with short attention spans who forget their own talents and skills as more and more is forced upon them without considering their interests and likes. As children forget their own talents and skills, they end up taking the easy way out. They'd rather sleep than spend a day playing sports of learning something new or working on a practical project.

"Education is teaching students how to learn - and what to learn - and never forcing them to imbibe in memory, the content that should be learned." This is almost entirely ignored by most Engineering Institutions I have seen. The focus of teaching students skills rather than elementary textual knowledge is fostered by the Universities in India and has not changed over the past three decades at the very least. For Universities, change is a nightmare in logistics and they would rather prefer not to - choosing the easy way out.

Most people never find this. Furthermore for students who have grown up studying in gender-exclusive schools,  the co-educational systems in Higher Education send them into a path of confused relations with the opposite gender. While conservative and protectionist society continues to shun the idea of boys interacting with girls on a friendly basis, this becomes a strong preoccupation besides gossip and smalltalk. 

It is easier to enforce rules and regulations with fear as a motivator, rather than use empathy and allow individuals to reason for themselves. Most have already been motivated by fear throughout their schooldays and hence stop responding to empathic motivation and initiatives to develop self-discipline. Parents send their children to educational institutions and believe that some magical transformation would lend them to become Engineers with certifications and academic laurels. They spend too little time in the interest of their children's education. They too prefer the easy way out.

Students do keep asking for longer periods of time to relax and rest after being numbed in boring Lecture classes. If this is provided, they find more time to take on the vices of society - alcohol, tobacco, drugs - being the least of them. If this is denied they end up being further numbed and refuse to improve themselves consistently. They would rather take the easier way out than work hard to learn and add skills and expertise to themselves.

During the last few months of their Engineering studies, students expect to be recruited somehow by Industrial companies and Commercial groups in Recruitment drives majorly composed of campus interviews. Few think of alternate options like Entrepreneurship. Some are prepared to take a post graduate degree outside India, after having figured out that the education insofar received has been of no use to them. Some prefer to leave the field of Engineering and enter the field of Business Administration - a rather poor choice considering that they could have pursued it earlier as their graduate course too. Students develop a strong mentality to always choose the easy way out.

Summarizing what I have observed and learned, the Indian Education System and the Higher Education System does not add any value to students. The only help it provides them is an environment where they can interact with others and therefore build social camaraderie. That is too little value for the price paid for education. Some knowledge is retained, but practical knowledge is always found lacking. Curiosity, the inner need to Learn, reading habits and the ability to resolve practical engineering problems is found entirely lacking.

Indian students in general lack taste in perfection. This is primarily because mediocrity is tolerated in education. Mediocrity and substandard results are tolerated, and worse yet - accepted by the parents. Hence Companies never recruit based on Engineering course scores, but prefer to conduct their own screening examinations and have complex recruitment processes which cost them heavily in HR recruitment budgets. There have been recent comments that the premium Engineering & Technology Institutions of India, the IITs, the NITs have also been dropping their quality over time. As more and more students graduate, all of them come out with a tendency to always choose the easier way out. They are unprepared and often unwilling to work long hours - a habit they acquire during their Higher education days that festers as time goes by. It is always the easy way out, rather than taking a challenge.

The result that the country faces is hard to digest. Today, Engineers in India are more unreliable than technicians in creating, maintaining and servicing products. A carpenter takes better measurements than a Civil Engineer. Computer Engineers can seldom program when they come out of college. Lack of appropriately skilled people reduces the value produced by the country and impacts the GDP heavily. Despite high population and therefore potential to create value in this age of Technology, India finds progress too difficult.

Issues like corruption are not uncommon in the field of Education. Universities engage in malpractices which are nothing short of extortion from students. Indians, especially in the South where educational institutions are numerous - have unfortunately attempted to take the easy way out. No one has tried nor succeeded in changing the system.

In the end, life is never easy and the easy way out turns out to be a blunder. It renders the country with substandard individuals dreaming of higher standards of life which they themselves are unable to create. The discrimination between blue collar labor and white collar labor is too high in India. This results in blue collar laborers moving themselves and their own children to white collar labor resulting in dearth of skilled labor. In the end the country is slowly grinding to a halt. Those who are extremely intelligent, and have succeeded despite the ill environment of the Higher education system pursue jobs abroad and contribute too little or naught to their own Country. Slowly, but surely, India is crumbling - as everyone continues to choose the easy way out.