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Multi-armed with knowledge

University education today lags pitifully behind the demands of our globalised knowledge economy. It’s time it provides a multi-disciplinary approach to learning, writes Gautam Chikermane.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2008 20:29 IST
Gautam Chikermane

When I see the cut-off percentages needed to get into any respectable college in Mumbai or Delhi today, I find myself cut off from all avenues of what we term ‘education’ and a traditional ‘career’.

With the marks I got in my Class 12 board exams, only a miracle got me a leg into a decent college through what the University of Delhi calls ‘Third cut-off list’. If I wanted to study my course (economics) today, I would have had to go to some other university as no college would give me admission based on my marks. if I wanted my college, the only course available to me with my marks would be Sanskrit.

At that time if someone had suggested Sanskrit, I would have laughed it off. But today, I see the strength of the language in logical thinking and wish to study it. I also want to study law, physics, psychology, sociology, genetics, history etc.

My job demands that I have a working knowledge of many subjects, which have become tools of work rather than fields of study.

For workers in our knowledge society that is transforming everything from the way we communicate to what we do, the need is an inter-disciplinary approach to education, an exposure to many fields, rather than the sham of expertise, an ‘honours’, if you will, in one.

While much has changed since I finished college, a young adult standing at the threshold of the same make-or-break decision today is unfortunately looking at exactly how I perceived the world then, and millions before me. Nothing much has changed: universities are behaving as though they are working in isolation, unconcerned with a changing India that’s more global than ever before, offering more opportunities than it has ever done, in an age of knowledge where the Indian knowledge worker is impacting the way the world swivels.

In this globalised world, where markets, knowledge and organisations have lost their citizenship and with it some of their assumptions, shouldn’t there be a course titled ‘Globalisation’ that supplements the 12 lectures of ‘External Sector’ at University of Mumbai’s SYBA? Or a course in psychology that helps students question the 15-lecture ‘perfect competition’ when placed against an imperfect world, where neither consumers nor firms — and not even nations — seek profit maximisation or work with favourable competitive advantages? A course of genetics in zoology or botany, management applications in commerce, history in law, science policy in political science?

The elite force of workers that elite universities help themselves to — gained over decades using regulation, coercion and sheer momentum of a citizenry that refused to question basic assumptions — needs to change. The irrelevance of education as we saw it in our times created mere irritation with the system, pushing us to conclude that education was a ‘time pass’, a place where you chased girls, smoked grass and gave rock shows.

What else could one conclude when — to give just one example — a senior professor of national income accounts and analysis looking over his crinkled notes, proudly said they were over ‘three decades old’.

All you heard in his class was his droning voice and the scratching of 40 pens transcribing those words of universal wisdom. And the expression of pride our professor carried in his eyes, every first lesson on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings that left most of us asphyxiated.

The system worked then because the B.A. degree was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to get a job — any job, from a peon to a management trainee. Since then, the floor has shifted from under the feet of such thinking. In the market that seeks from education a value proposition, Indian universities have been left behind in keeping up with their key determinant: knowledge.

Private institutes have sprung up to counter the shortage of skilled young people. Today, armed with a nine-month diploma in software, a young person can get himself a job. Status has followed this change, as he can legitimately call himself an ‘engineer’ since his company offers him that status, even though traditionally speaking he is not. A short English-speaking course provides more jobs today to more people than any university course.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that all education has to be job-oriented, money-focused or even utilitarian. This is only a submission of scale for a huge number of young and talented minds who are not really interested in pure research in quantum physics or single-entry record keeping but want to apply them as tools to work their software or accounting.

Today’s young minds are more demanding, more focused, better prepared for life than we ever were. They are a more ambitious lot, are willing to work hard provided there is a tangible objective (and, of course, some cash) at
the end of this dark three-year-long tunnel. Can the university serve this need?

Learning has always been lifelong. But while an earlier generation could say it as a poetic gesture, for a large majority of today’s generation of youngsters, learning has to have tangible and monetisable meaning, as they swim in cross-currents of knowledge, where they need to borrow from many fields to achieve their tasks. The ‘Third cut-off list’ is only an entry point. What universities have to finally offer is an atmosphere, a discipline of constant learning.