Terms of Trade | India’s education system is broken

Sep 29, 2023 04:09 PM IST

Kota and Mukherjee Nagar are prime examples. Here’s what we need to consider to begin fixing the problem

Not a month goes by when we do not hear the heartbreaking news of a young student dying by suicide in Kota, Rajasthan, a town filled with students aspiring to get into the IITs. This year, we also had two near-mishaps in Mukherjee Nagar, where many students almost perished in a fire in the crowded suburb of Delhi University’s North Campus. These incidents might appear completely disconnected to the observer, but that is not the case.

A view outside the PG in Mukherjee Nagar where a fire broke out on Wednesday, in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT) PREMIUM
A view outside the PG in Mukherjee Nagar where a fire broke out on Wednesday, in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT)

Kota and Mukherjee Nagar are symptomatic of what can be described as the pre-job-market gold rush in India’s young workforce. These young students know that the race is difficult, perhaps even dangerous; and as Kota teaches us, fatal in many cases. But the potential rewards of winning it are too attractive for them (or their parents) to stay away from it even at the risk of destruction.

While the winners of this race have played an important role in India’s growth process and also accumulated significant material gains for themselves, those who cannot make it end up with what can only be described as a long-term abusive relationship with the labour market. To be sure, there is nothing to suggest that there is any coercion at play in millions of students partaking in this dangerous game. But, one can rightly argue that this problem is deeply rooted in India’s education and labour markets.

The genesis of Mukherjee Nagar’s tinderboxes

Modern education, in the form it is known today in India, was introduced by the British. While they did set up schools even in villages, literacy was anything but a mass phenomenon when we became independent.

Two simultaneous processes helped in the spread of higher education. First was the slow but steady empowerment of the socially weaker sections who were historically excluded from education under India's caste system. The second was the realisation among the rural social elite that feudalism and its material gains were atrophying and one needed a job outside agriculture to even maintain the earlier standards of living.

The expansion in both demand and supply for education, however, did not trigger a rethink on the nature of higher education that was being provided, which was, by and large, overwhelmingly designed to produce clerks for the State. It was more than clear within the first two decades of Independence that the supply of “educated” labour from this system was much greater than what the State or India’s nascent capitalism could absorb. The crisis was far more acute in North and East India which fell behind its southern and western peers in capitalist development.

What made matters worse in this region was the steady destruction of the educational system under the watch of politicians who came to power in these states. University campuses became the theatre of political violence. A three-year BA degree could take anywhere between five to six years in a state like Bihar. It was this destruction of the Patna and Allahabad universities that triggered a wave of mass outmigration of students to places like Delhi University. They would come with the goal of becoming an IAS and be happy to settle for anything from ending up as a lawyer or lecturer or even a slightly lower-grade bureaucrat.

What was remarkable about this model was that, beyond a point, the influx was much greater than what places like Delhi University could absorb. More and more students started coming to Delhi to be a part of the “eco-system” of candidates preparing for “competitive exams” rather than being enrolled in a university institution. Over time, the “eco-system” has expanded with Delhi becoming a preparatory hub not just for elite civil services but even low-end bureaucratic jobs.

It is this expansion which has led to the growth of hazardous, but low-cost commercial and residential infrastructure around Delhi University to accommodate the growing number of students. A crackdown on these rule-violating places will not solve the problem, because students need low-cost infra which is within their financial grasp. In fact, Mukherjee Nagar is among the relatively better places in this coaching industrial complex.

Kota represents the post-reform gold-rush

Sometime after the 1991 reforms (and the Mandal Commission report), it dawned on India’s (mostly upper caste) middle classes that the government, especially civil services, was not the best career bet for their children. Not only was the size of the government shrinking and reservations had made things difficult, but the private sector, especially things such as IT, were offering a much more lucrative career progression. It is this realisation which made engineering the new gold rush in India’s job market. Unlike the civil services, this was a much safer bet, because even if one could not make it to the IITs, there were a lot of reasonably to workably good options in state and private engineering colleges.

While there is no hard data to support this claim, one can make a reasonable argument that India’s old industrial towns led the first big wave of north-Indian middle-class students getting into engineering colleges. South India had a head start on this front thanks to the private engineering college revolution in the 1980s.

Once the trend became big outside these industrial towns, capitalism stepped in to offer coaching centre factories to help students crack the exam without any help from their peers. The Kota model, where students enrol into part-time schools at the +2 level and full-time coaching institutes is the most intensive form of this coaching-industrial complex. With the complex becoming bigger and bigger, and the pool of aspirants widening by the day, the pressure also increased and in the most unfortunate cases, it drove young students living without any social or family support towards taking the most drastic step. These suicides, however, are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

A realistic appraisal is needed

There is no denying the fact that coaching industrial complexes such as Mukherjee Nagar and Kota produce a lot of successful students. However, what is often forgotten while praising these models is the fact that the absolute number of success stories is also a reflection of a very large number of students who flock to these places. Two points need to be made vis-à-vis this problem.

First, the problem of missing the middle in terms of employment opportunities in the Indian economy. With enrollment numbers rising continuously and Indian parents investing way beyond their capacity in education, a large number of students are being pushed into pursuing aspirations which are way beyond their capability levels. While the argument may appear demeaning to some people, competitive exams such as IITs or the UPSC require a very high level of skill set and tenacity. It should be perfectly alright for the modal student to aspire for a low-risk low-reward career choice rather than deal with this crushing competition. Given the fact that most of these aspirants eventually end up in low-reward professions, this makes all the more sense.

The second follows from the first. The growth of these coaching industrial complexes has played a major role in India’s poorer states ending up as capital exporters to these geographical locations. According to an HT story, Kota’s coaching industrial complex makes around ten thousand crore rupees a year and a lot of this money comes from parents who are spending way beyond their means. It is reasonable to assume that Delhi’s coaching industrial complex – Mukherjee Nagar is just one of the places it operates – will be at least two or three times the size of Kota. Even if one assumes a conservative size of thirty thousand crore rupees a year, it entails an amount equal to almost half of what India spends every year on the rural employment guarantee programme. Whether these coaching industrial complexes are an engine of equality or inequality is a valid question to ask.

How does one solve these two problems? This question cannot be answered without engaging with the sociology of labour markets in India.

India is all set to become the third largest economy in the world and its private sector has some of the largest and most successful companies as well as new-age start-ups today. What has not changed, however, and this is perhaps the reflection of deeply entrenched feudal values in our collective feudal and caste-ridden psyche, is the fact that we continue to lack a basic dignity for labour. This is exactly what makes even a government peon’s job more attractive than a plumber’s or carpenter’s job despite the fact that there is an acute shortage of people who can perform the latter kind of job with skill — this is a running refrain among large companies or rich households living in bigger cities who need such workers — and make much more money. Nothing else explains the fact that even middle-class students are happy to perform part-time blue-collar jobs when they go and study in western countries but cannot even think of doing this in India.

To be sure, this column is not arguing that young students should give up their IIT or UPSC dreams to become a carpenter or a plumber. What it is trying to argue is that unless we as a society adopt dignity of labour as a social norm, our education system will continue to produce millions of wrecks along with a handful of success stories. This is the worst thing India can do to its demographic dividend.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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