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Saturday, December 6, 2003

Lakhs of candidates are appearing for the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) exams in our city alone.  You must have heard about the sea of humanity that assembles at the Secunderabad station seeking these jobs.  There were nearly 11 lakh applicants for 2,700 positions that need a minimum qualification of eighth standard. Many of the applicants had bachelors’ or master’s degrees and are clearly over-qualified for such jobs.  Their plight is obvious.

The scene is equally distressing when we speak of admission exams for higher studies.  Tender teenagers regularly spend over 12 hours each day preparing for entrance exams. Their preparation is mostly made up of rote learning, memorizing and attempting to understand out-dated or apparently irrelevant syllabi. A large part of their time and thought are also spent in worrying about the consequences of failure.

If the students are terrified and anxious, the parents are doing equally worse. Crores of middle-class parents are forced to sacrifice for their children. Decent education demands indecent amounts of money these days.  It doesn’t stop at that: parents routinely sacrifice their entertainment and, even sleep, so that their children do not miss their college or tuition classes.

What do we get in return?  Parents are transformed into nervous, joyless and sleepless wrecks who seem to invest money only to buy worry.  Under the present education-examination system, our children are actually doing the best they could.  But they are the real victims in the longer run.

It is a shame that years of rote learning and memorizing of out-dated syllabi are termed “professional education” in our country. Degree-holders find themselves neither professional nor educated enough.  Higher degrees do not ensure proportionately improved technical skills and general aptitude.  What is the end result? Lakhs of graduates today are forced to remain high on percentages and degree certificates but low in applicable knowledge and self-confidence.

But, there is no need to despair. There is a way out of this mess.  Our higher education system can be substantially improved by reforming at two key stages:

(1)  Admission Procedure: Only the motivated and capable among applicants must be consistently admitted into a study program.  Most of the entrance exams today at best, do not measure the relevant aptitude of applicants and at worst, are prone to manipulation.  We need an admission procedure that is fair and transparent, robust and reliable. If our authorities employ their latent imaginative talents, I am quite confident that this objective could be easily achieved.

(2)  Education Process: The actual education process must mould the motivated students into open-minded, creative and confident graduates.  The current syllabi, teaching techniques and examinations achieve none of those objectives.  So why not use the creativity of our competent teacher force to redesign the course contents and the teaching-style, making them more attractive?

These are no doubt two substantial challenges. Let me emphasize that it is precisely such challenges that give us an opportunity to demonstrate our inventiveness.  Every crisis should be converted into an opportunity.

For example: each year, we produce more than 3,50,000 technologists from 1100 professional colleges alone!  Millions more graduate from the universities. It is estimated that by the year 2020, India will have 47 million surplus (i.e. potentially jobless) working age people.   Some might consider this an impending economic and social disaster.  I project a more optimistic forecast: we can convert this apparent demographic liability into an asset. These millions of young could be channelized into improving sectors like infrastructure, primary health care or primary education.  Developing India and creating jobs need not be two separate challenges; one could directly become solution for the other.

The future belongs to those who are willing to find creative and acceptable solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.  Our education system must give the teachers and students confidence to approach such problems with an open-mind.  As some one rightly said: education is all about taking an empty mind and making it an open mind.