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Indian Higher Education: Thumbs Down

Posted by anandrr on September 2, 2008

We wrote earlier about what we thought about the state of Computer Science education in India. I’ll now expound on Indian higher education in general. The symptoms are similar, and the reasons are largely similar also. The main symptom is somewhat like the problem with CS grads, almost all graduates of Indian universities are unemployable. As before this is not a personal failing of the students themselves, like all students they are enthusiastic and eager but the education system fails them, and fails the country. Nobody seeing the high demand for Indian college graduates in cities like Bangalore and their sky rocketing salaries would believe the premise of this post, but join me after the jump and I’ll dish.

The premise of a college education is that it takes young men and women on the threshold of adulthood and prepares them for the life ahead. It does this by teaching them a wide variety of skills that they will use in the future as well as inculcating in them an ability to think critically and express those thoughts eloquently. The Indian college education however succeeds in just one thing: preparing students to write and pass examinations. Unfortunately, the rest of life looks nothing like a college mid-term, so of course this has disastrous consequences for the students themselves. Never mind that they are shelling out a lot of money to acquire this education, students (and their parents who are spending the money) are the real losers in this bargain. And teachers of course, but teachers always lose whether here in India or in the West where education seems to be so much better. Colleges make out like bandits. There seems to be no limit to how much a college charges for the pathetic excuse that they call an education, and at all price points there seem to be enough people willing to buy to make it an attractive business for anybody with a little cash to invest. The people regulating these institutions either don’t know what it is that they are regulating, or worse don’t appear to care.

Set aside critical thinking skills for the moment, just consider the tangible skills that students must acquire at these colleges. The average graduate of a 3-year BSc/BCom course speaks and writes English and understands mathematical concepts at a seventh grade level. Most graduates of these colleges would have been far better served with vocational training of some kind, at least that might have made them employable. It would not have given them any of the soft skills a college education is supposed to get you, but 1 out of 2 is a good sight better than 0. And vocational training is what they end up getting. First at a school that robs them blind and teaches them “spoken and written English,” then at another school that robs them even more and teaches them “computer skills.” Both of these schools don’t really teach them much, but armed with these vocational degrees they can now get a job at a company that will now spend its time training them specifically on what they need to do their job: speaking with a neutral accent, importing data and creating pivot tables in Excel, name your mind-numbingly repetitive task here.

The average graduate writes such pitiful English it saddens me deeply. I’m on the jobs mailing list for our company, and the quality of the emails makes me cringe. If all of the people writing these emails passed their English classes, I’m forced to ask, exactly what did their English class require? When I give them a seemingly simple Mathematics word problem, most of them follow a simple approach of knowing that given a bunch of numbers, the answer must be some combination of arithmetic operations on those numbers. This is ideal to pass an examination, if you’re lucky you get it right and score all the marks, if not you get marks for the effort, at least you tried a few arithmetic operations and succeeded, you might have been multiplying when you should really have been dividing but that’s ok at least you tried; do that often enough and you’ll pass. God forbid your problem have red herrings in them.

And so the students find other ways to supplement their education. While they are in college, they sign up with NIIT or one of its many look-alikes to take a 4-year course in computers. The schools themselves are low on infrastructure, but can’t keep the students away, so they rake in the moolah while leaving the students little better than when they started. The students learn Java programming, databases, web programming, the works, but with no practical experience, they’re guaranteed to graduate the course with little more learning than when they started. After college, the kids rack up the Masters degrees: MCA, MBA and other such alphabet soup starting with M, many of them by correspondence. But not every school is an IIT or an IIM so 3 years and another lakh or so rupees later, the student now has a master’s degree but finds her (thankfully in Bangalore at least  the average college graduate does seem to be a she) learning just as discounted as when she started this quest for a master’s degree. The entire system seems designed to rip off the students and their parents.

What to do? I have no ideas. On the one hand, if we truly have a free market in education, it’s likely that we’re just going through a land grab right now but eventually this will sort itself out and education standards will begin to rise as the customers begin to demand more. On the other, perhaps what we need is some strict regulation of education, but do we really want our Government taking any more of an activist role in education?

In the meantime, companies will decide that there is only one scalable way to use Indian talent: hire them young, as young as possible, and train them in your business. Some of them will turn out to have innate talent and rise to the top. Some will just continue to form the strong assembly line base for your knowledge work and do that for the rest of their lives, perennially thankful that you picked them out of school and gave them a skill and a salary. And some others will fall in between, wanting to do more but finding that your services model doesn’t account for people like them, or perhaps that it does, it accounts for them by expecting them to leave looking for greener pastures. After all, there’s a fresh set of eagle eyed graduates right behind them quite willing to be trained and employed, they’ve just completed 3-year degree that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

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2 Responses to “Indian Higher Education: Thumbs Down”

  1. RT said

    This is like repeating again and again the same thing that India is just another software sweat- shop for US. Well heard it …infact my ears are already numb by that statement. Do you think if our education system was kind of like US (while they look at Finnish system) all our problems would be gone tomorrow. Do you think a bare 10th class Grocery store boy in India calculates the cost of 10 items in his mind and a grad in US would still need a calculator to run the math say anything about the system. What about the cost of the higher education that is provided in US ? How many in India would be able to afford it if we went the US model.

    Sometimes we need to not think of the problems but a solution. Can you do something better atleast think of something better that the current education system? (don’t put it on the Goverment please, if you cannot do it just think its you multiples by another 50 problem finders). Think about how our higher education teaches us to survive in any condition , gives us a decent education to stand up and grab the jobs from the rednecks and make a higher standard of living for us in the process. Without sufficent staff, bare minimal of facilities and little incentives most people are equipped for a life with our education system.As for English pitiful it is like a joke that goes “even 3 yr olds in US speak English!!!” .

    Have you thought that this assembly line workers/sweat shop employees will pave the way for the next generation to be designers and patent producers. That these assembly lines /sweat shops any work has improved their standard of living so that the next generation kids don’t have to worry about getting a job for mere meeting-the-ends but can have a montissorie education, take IIT coaching classes (if that is the in thing then also) and can be on the lookout for opprtunities tailor-made to their interest and inclination.

    Most cliche quote : The Indian college education however succeeds in just one thing: preparing students to write and pass examinations.
    Let me just add to the fact : The Indian college education however succeeds in just one thing: preparing students to write and pass examinations and preparing you to survive even in deficencies.

  2. […] education system, and at the Blandings Media Empire, we’ve written before about how the system screws over the very people it is meant to serve, however 3 Idiots is neither of those movies. What it is instead is a poorly made movie, low on […]

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