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India’s higher education has no connection with reality

Some believe that students privileged by a university education should be compelled to repay the rest of India by doing national service. I don’t think compulsion is the answer but I do think BA graduates should be encouraged to go into real India for two years and serve those who have not enjoyed their privilege.

analysis Updated: Jun 02, 2018 18:34 IST
Many students opt for an MA because they are told a BA alone is not a sufficient qualification for most jobs and even when it is MAs get higher salaries(Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

In this season, the year’s crop of BA graduates has to make decisions about its future. Many of them opt for further education but I would question the value of much of the education on offer.

Take the MA degree. Many students opt for an MA because they are told a BA alone is not a sufficient qualification for most jobs and even when it is, MAs get higher salaries. Staying at university is essential for many professions, including academia, and it might be argued that any MA provides a different learning experience to a BA. But a head of a department at Cambridge once admitted to me that MAs were “a money-making racket for universities”. I wonder whether the many who will drift into MA studies because it has become the done thing or because they think it improves career prospects will be spending their time valuably.

Then there is the option offered by Union Public Services Commission exam coaching centres. Their front-page newspaper advertisements are peppered with small pictures of successful past students. No mention is made of all those who failed. Five lakh aspirants are expected to compete for 782 vacancies this year. The coaching centres are crammers, cramming useless knowledge and exam-passing techniques into students’ heads. Many students spend a whole academic year in this questionable pursuit.

I would suggest that the UPSC exam system is misconceived because it is based on the theory that those who are best at passing exams will make the best government servants. There are two good reasons for toppers, as they are called, not necessarily being the right choice. Those whose natural talents have enabled them to sail through school and university may be tainted by arrogance, and lack of sympathy for those less talented. The minds of those who get high marks by hard slogging, the swots, may well be narrowed by hours spent studying when they should have been pursuing other mind broadening activities. When a retired officer of the British Raj’s India Civil Service, or ICS, suggested I would have made a good member of his fraternity, I said I wouldn’t have got in because I didn’t get a first at university. He replied, “Oh no, you are wrong. The seconds always did better in service.”

The third educational opportunity BA graduates go for which I regard as of questionable value is the MBA, or Master of Business Administration. Suffice it to say that Martin Parker who taught in business schools for 20 years recently wrote an article in The Guardian: “Why we should bulldoze the Business School.” He went on to say that business schools were widely regarded as “intellectually fraudulent places fostering a culture of short-termism and greed.” One of the flaws in the MBA is that students are taught to rely on theoretical knowledge and not encouraged to respect domain knowledge, knowledge gained from experience on the ground. They emerge thinking they know an awful lot only to find they know awfully little.

These three options have one thing in common – they lack contact with the reality of India. The MAs remain cosseted in the unreal university world. The UPSC hopefuls concentrate entirely on studies relevant only to passing the exams. The MBAs often escape to America. Wherever they study they only think about avoiding reality by entering the unreal corporate world.

Some believe that students privileged by a university education should be compelled to repay the rest of India by doing national service. I don’t think compulsion is the answer but I do think BA graduates should be encouraged to go into real India for two years and serve those who have not enjoyed their privilege. Ways of doing this already exist and there are students who chose this option. There are for instance the students who join the Gandhi Fellowship. They live for two years in rural areas, fending for themselves, immersing themselves in the community and supporting primary school head teachers to transform their schools. Who would question the value of that further education and its contact with reality?

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 16:55 IST