Pop quiz of the day: The purpose of education is to (a) get a good job (b) earn a degree (c) win the respect of peers and family (d) create wealth or (e) learn skills to lead a productive life.
The good news is there is no wrong answer. An education is indeed about gaining skills that will fetch a job/ income/ respect. Education is also about creating wealth, not just material wealth but wealth in terms of ideas, theories and creative solutions. And, of course, an education is nothing if it does not teach life skills and humane values.
As Indians we believe that education is the key to everything from jobs to happiness. Education is our chief aspirational goal where upgrade is a constant mantra, a series of stepping stones that must be gingerly navigated, from government to private schools, from Hindi to English medium, from polytechnics to degree colleges.
But Indian education is a multi-layered thing where we're constantly struggling to reconcile opposites – pushing up literacy rates while checking capitation fees in higher education; talking about the lack of toilets in girls' school (a big reason why girls drop out by secondary school) while glowing with pride at our world-class IITs, IIMs and National Law Schools.
Or to toss another set of opposites: only 12.4 per cent (or 13 million) of our 220 million high school children actually end up in college, a miserly comparison with 40 per cent in the developed world. Yet, Indian skills and and talent are prized all over the world; at last count there were 1,05,000 Indian students, the second largest international group after the Chinese, in various American universities.
For this privileged bunch, a foreign degree is more than a fashion statement. First, there is the practical constraint. It is often easier to get admitted to a good college in the US than it is to a top-notch one in India where cut-offs for in-demand subjects like Economics are as high as 96 per cent in the first list. If you are fortunate enough to afford it and unfortunate enough to not be among those 90 per cent plus scorers, you could settle for a second-rate college here or try your luck in the West.
There are other reasons. The Americans have understood that the basic essence of education is freedom. In which other university system can you major in international relations and dance? Which other system will let you design your own major if nothing available appeals to you? Which other system has everything on tap, from internships to study abroad; from core requirements in maths, science, arts to community outreach? Education is all encompassing, as it should be.
In India we remain crazily exam-centric. Learning equals memorisation. A vanilla BA requires little more than swotting from a kunji one month before the exams. I should know. That's how I graduated -- and I stood first in my college, third in Delhi University.
Other exams seem to be based on the principle of making it impossible to pass. A friend, recently back from pilot training in the US, sat for an exam on navigation, trying to figure out why he was being asked questions on yellow fever.
If education is to go beyond a piece of paper, India must produce indigenous institutions with imaginative curriculums. Our testing systems have to move beyond exams to continuous evaluation, as has been done for the 10th grade. Our admission criteria must be wider than cut-offs. Collaboration with foreign universities will meet some of the demand. But without homegrown institutions, whether public or private, we will continue to remain dependable feeders to foreign universities.
Worse, we will continue to create an artificial hierarchy where an elite force including CEOs and MPs (as many as 12 senior Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have been educated abroad) will be those armed with degrees obtained outside of India.
Class distinctions in India are already deeply tattooed. Education should not be the new divider.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.